I met Adam at the bookstore. He was in the section marked Biography/History and he was looking, extensively, at a book about some historical event no one’s ever heard of. The only way I knew it was an historical event was because the cover was in black and white and had a photo on it of a tank. But it wasn’t a World War II book; WWII has its own section, way over on the other side of the store.
I myself was aiming for the art books, because my friend Terrie had just had a life-changing experience from looking at a photograph of a clown. She’d spent her childhood terrified of clowns but when she saw this photo, on a friend’s coffee table, she experienced a 180 degree shift – one of those rare moments when the other side becomes clear as anything, and we can no longer understand why it was so hard to get before.
“Clowns are desperate,” she’d told me, with wonder in her voice. “That’s why they’re so scary.”
It hadn’t occurred to me either, and I wanted to see if she was right. I too had had the experience of a childhood clown doll that one day had transformed from delightful toy-friend into the diabolical engineer of my nightmares. It had to be sold at the neighbor’s garage sale, because I refused to sell it at my own. Someone bought it for seventy-five cents – some kid too young to feel the fear yet – and I threw the cursed coins into the outdoor trash, observing as the other neighborhood kids spotted and retrieved them. Let them spend it, I thought, from the safety of my bedroom. It will only bring them grief.
They used the quarters to buy ice cream.
Story of my life.
I found the art book Terrie had been talking about, and flipped towards the photo of the clown, which, according to the table of contents, was on page 32. As I skipped through those shiny pages, pages that smelled like a hair salon, Adam turned and held up the war book. “Do you know this photo?” he asked me, tapping the cover.
“Oh,” I said. “Is that World War I?”
He shook his head, and his hair was very light brown, almost colorless, and as it shifted, it caught no light.
“Korean war,” he said. “A photo from then.”
He shelved the book. “They told me it was a good read but I just read a page and it was so dull,” and then he stepped closer. Aside from that colorless hair, he had a wide open face, sort of big-featured, with a big nose and big eyes and teeth. Likeable. The kind of face you could immediately trust, even against better judgment.
I held my finger before page 32. I didn’t want to look at the clown first off. It seemed too intimate, even if I was just looking with myself. So I was looking, then, instead, at a washed-up movie star wearing sequins in some kind of aquarium tank emptied of water. I guess they were trying to work with the phrase ‘washed up’, but the star didn’t seem aware of that because she was grinning in the tank like it was all funny and fun. Maybe the whole book should’ve been titled desperation.
“What are you looking at?” he asked, peering over my shoulder.
“Art photos,” I said.
“Wait, wasn’t she in that cop movie?”
We stared at her together, in that tank. “Was she?” I asked. She had giant breasts, ornamented by magenta sequins. I found her painful, so I turned the page to have something to do, and there was the clown, with its big nose and scary mouth makeup and scary eyes and red costume. And I could see what she meant, Terrie. Right off, I got what she was saying. It was trying so hard. That was part of what was so menacing – its enormous effort to amuse. You kind of wanted to hurt the clown, before it smothered you into total suffocation.
“Do you think it looks desperate?” I asked him.
He squinted his eyes, and stared at the photo for at least a minute. “Why do they do the eyes like that?” he said, at last. “I mean, the star-shaped thing? Is that clown protocol?”
We ended up at the Greek coffee place next door, and he bought no biography and before we left the store, I flipped through the rest of the photo book to see if the others were desperate too but they weren’t, not in the same way. They were just pictures of other shiny figures that looked good in bright colors, like Vegas acrobatic performers at Rite-Aid, or a tomato farmer in his garden reading Newsweek. Only pages 30-32 were terrifying.
Adam got up to get the coffees while I looked out at the cars driving by on Sunset. It was raining a little, and watching the windshield wipers made me feel more settled. The air smelled like city, like damp city.
“They told me that was the definitive book on Korea,” he said, returning with the coffees. “I’m disappointed.”
I felt attractive, talking to him. Next to those big features of his, I could feel myself as delicate. When the conversation waned, I sipped from my bitter little Greek coffee, and told him that my friend Terrie was having surgery the following day. That she was young, still, but they’d found problematic shapes in her bronchitis x-ray. “Lumpy shapes,” I said, “inside her lungs.”
He stirred his coffee, and nodded with appropriate solemnity. He seemed more measured, now that he was caffeinated.
The cars whisked by.
“You know,” I said. “I just lied. That’s not true.”
I reached out, and touched his arm. “I didn’t know what to say,” I said, and his arm was warm, “so I made up Terrie’s lumps. That’s awful of me.”
He leaned in, then, and he didn’t kiss me but it was too close for regular. We spent a few minutes there, blinking together, breathing the coffee-scented air. Who knew what would happen? He had that trustworthy face, a face I didn’t trust, simply because I’d trusted it so swiftly.
We agreed to meet the following afternoon at the beach in Santa Monica, and the directions we gave each other were complicated enough, were distinct enough, so neither could possibly get lost. Of course I was early because I’m always early, and I didn’t head over to the water just yet, instead wandering past the snack bar, reading the names of foods listed in black plastic stick-on letters: chili dog. Onion rings. Popsicle. Words I love to see in black plastic stick-on, words that conveyed summer to me, on this cloudy November afternoon. I hadn’t called Terrie the night before, because I’d sold her out for flirting; it seemed I’d cursed her, and although I was fairly certain I had no cursing abilities, it was not in the spirit of good friendship and this I knew. But I had not been flirted with in many months, and this man had not rejected the reeking desperation of either the clown or the old star, and asking for sympathy about a dying friend was the first tool that appeared from my own personal flirting toolbox. Sometimes my own capacity for smallness is surprising, even to myself.
Adam was already at the beach when I walked over, and he had a picnic basket in his hands. He’d set up a blowzy checkered blanket, whose corners picked up with the wind, and when I walked across the sand, bumpy and difficult to traverse, he smiled at me with those wide open eyes. For a few minutes we chit-chatted, and at one point, he threw his hands into the air and said some exclamations, about nothing, really, but just showing a sense of spirit. I felt the love, spreading roots in my chest, making it so easy to smile, the way the promise of love loosens and eases the muscles of the face, and how the onset of pain had tightened them before, into tense lines and grit. How good it felt, to let go of grit for a second! We settled onto the blanket and he opened a small size bottle of champagne and we toasted and the water waves crashed, and other than a homeless man way to the left and two teenagers trying to get tan on the right, we were alone. I reached out a hand, and touched his colorless hair, and he turned his face to my palm. Then he reached into the picnic basket, and pulled out two plates, two checkered napkins, and two forks.
“Wow,” I said. “You go all out.”
As he removed the plastic food containers, he told me he used to be a chef, that he used to own his own restaurant. He told me the name of it, and how he’d gotten a great review last year in the L.A. Weekly, saying he had a knack for unusual flavor combinations. “Really?” I said, impressed, and then, after a pause, he said no. “I mean, I’ve always liked to cook. Never got paid for it. Sorry.” We looked out at the water. It was the second lie, and it was clear, from the tone of his takeback, that he had surprised himself with it. For whatever reason, it seemed we couldn’t help but lie to each other. It didn’t even feel like a big deal to me at first, but like an unexpected shift in weather, as the food came out of the basket, his mood collapsed. When he removed pieces of a roasted chicken from the container, and handfuls of green grapes, they were almost like apologies, for something he had committed long ago and I would never understand. Certainly he had no reason to apologize to me, me who was so ready to love him. He handed me a charred chicken leg, and a bunch of grapes, and refilled my champagne. “It’s lovely,” I said, about five times, but he wriggled under the compliment, and wouldn’t look over, and the way he sealed the remaining food back into its containers, with careful palm and thumb, made me feel badly, as if I’d done something wrong, or as if we both knew, in the future, that we would wrong each other irreparably. The seagulls approached. I ate the chicken and grapes, peeling stripes of chicken off the leg, but everything tasted a little off. Not like poison, but just not fulfilling, and Adam was striking me now as very difficult to know. “Why’d you want that book?” I asked, as I peeled the skin off a grape in slippery little triangles, and I understood then that I would be undressing every item of food I could because my clothes would be staying on.
“I like war books,” he said, out to the ocean. “Of wars people don’t read. I like to remember the forgotten wars.”
For dessert, he brought out oatmeal macadamia cookies that he had baked himself, but I could hardly eat them, my mouth felt so dry, and without thinking, I threw a few sprinkles to the seagulls who stepped closer on their webbed feet. I slipped my whole cookie into the sand when he wasn’t looking. Adam and I walked to the water and held hands and touched our bare cold toes to the foam. I felt like crying, then, with those seagulls invading our perfect picnic behind us, eating the cookies and the chicken, stepping all over the napkins, cackling, shoving each other out of the way.
I touched his arm again, and my eyes filled with tears.
“I know,” he said. “It isn’t right.”
When we finally kissed, it was clear that it was our last. His lips pressed gently against mine. I felt that kind of wrenching in my heart, and as I turned and walked the other way, I could hear him packing the picnic back into his basket. It took some effort to shoo away the seagulls, but finally they squawked and flew over us. A flock of seagulls. As a child, I’d found them so wonderful, seabirds, with their curving yellow-orange beaks and funny strut. They lived at the ocean, and anything that lived at the ocean I felt I could love forever. But they turned, in my mind. Sometime around adolescence, after hitting the critical mass of beach picnics, after seeing them come over again and again, pushing each other out of the way, squawking so loud, eating chicken and turkey sandwiches without pause, I found them repulsive.
At the snack bar, I ordered a basket of onion rings and sat on the green-painted ocean bench, watching the water. The clouds were thick, and the water took on a metallic gray sheen that eased my mind. When Adam passed by, with his picnic basket all packed up, I nodded, and he nodded. The look he gave my onion rings was that of a betrayed lover. But I have always liked onion rings. They were the thickly-cut kind, each ring the width of a plastic bracelet, dipped in golden-brown crumbs. I ate almost the whole basket, licking the bits off my fingers, and when I was done, I threw the remaining few to the trio of waiting seagulls, who, after all, were only hungry. Opinions change.
This version of the story is in English. In Milan. Standing tiptoe on the edge of a king-sized bed. She is shutting a window cut into the slant of the ceiling. She is naked. It is the largest bed she has ever seen. Since she arrived, the nights have been good. Good summer nights, dark and bold as a shape. This night, a friendly night she can shut a window on. Later, open the window to the same good night. For seven weeks, she has been teaching the verb to be, the verb to lie, the verb to want, the verb to go. Some verbs more active than others. All verbs conjugate. All verbs useful. Some more useful than others. Not the confusion she studied in college, people asking, “But what does the verb to be really mean? What is Being?” Maybe there was “Having” too. She dropped the course and took Italian, where she asked the professor, “You mean to say that the past participle of a verb conjugated with the verb to be has a masculine end even if the subject of the sentence is hundreds of women and only one man?”
“Ending,” the professor corrected. “Yes. That is true of any Romance language. As long as a man is part of the group, the past participle of a verb conjugated with the verb to be will have a masculine ending.”
“An old-fashioned idea of romance,” she joked. No one laughed.
Someone else said, “The notion of romance is more old-fashioned in English. In English there is never any discussion of sex between verb and subject.”
This story includes him. He is here, too. His English is basic, so words should be chosen with care. He is lying on the king-sized bed. To create the Italian version of this story, possibly all the words of the English version must be tossed into the air, allowed to fragment and fall back down onto new pages. Or perhaps the English version is created from Italian words thrown this way. But why talk about possibilities? There is little enough room for fact. In the Italian, all the verbs of this story are in the present perfect and therefore require past participles. This is not true in the English version. For him, the English version tries very hard to stay in the present and the present progressive. There are a few past tenses, one or two conditionals.
He is lying in bed. He is thinking about the sleek front of the new refrigerator door his company is marketing. His girlfriend is in Rome. She is marketing the new refrigerator door in Rome. She would call him a cheater. A liar. An ass. Obvious, stupid names. Names for millions of men, not meant only for him. He has been taking English classes for seven weeks. He never imagined lying naked in bed waiting for his teacher to shut the window in the slant of his ceiling. She is naked. On tiptoe. That is it. Enough. Sleek is a hard word. Slant is a hard word. The story slows down. Explains more. Now. He lies in bed. The window. A large rectangle. She, naked. Summer. Milan. Night. Words American and other English-speaking people use. Useful words. Useful is use in its adjectival form.
She is standing tiptoe on the edge of the board at the end of the bed. Edge is a hard word. Here. This. Edge. The edge of the footboard or baseboard? She is not sure. Not important, really. The word. Not all beds have them. Naked. She. Footboard/baseboard. Window. Night. Milan. Oh – Summer. Bed. King-sized bed. The footboard/baseboard runs from the edge of the bed under the window to the edge of the bed near the closet. Complicated use of run. The footboard/baseboard goes from the right edge to the left edge of the bed. It lies flat. Complicated again for both goes and lies. (Runs. Goes. Lies.) Boards have an active life we know nothing about. He does not laugh. No. Sorry. Sorry. No. nothing. A joke. Complicated. Nonsense. She stands on the footboard/baseboard. No longer tiptoe. The flat board. The moon is round. Flat is the opposite of round.
Remember shapes? The window is a rectangle. The moon is a circle in the center of the rectangle. The circle is at the center of the window. The moon is central to the rectangle. The light lies in a square on her naked back. Prepositions are not easy. Lies has different meanings depending on context. He can lie. He is lying. He is lying. He waits for her to lie. She steps on the footboard/baseboard. Foot over foot, like a tightrope walker. As in the circus. The circus with clowns and horses.
Naked in the circle moon and square light. She understands now. Now she sees. A complicated see. Not with the eyes. A seeing of the flat in the round of the moon. She does not want to lie on the king-sized bed. Not now. Not naked. Not with him. Her walk has to end at the closet edge. A complicated form of have. Different from the ownership have. Must has the same meaning as has to, in this case. The first has in this last sentence showing ownership. The meaning belongs to the must. Now. Like a tightrope walker. Must owning meaning and has to meaning must. Ownership central to the rectangular window. She sees. Her back flat in the round moon. Naked. Walking. Milan. Night. Summer. Teacher. Footboard/baseboard. Tightrope. Flat. Foot over foot. Lie. Her walk must end at the edge near the closet.
Maybe there is a better way to explain the verbs? Let us see. The same complicated see as before. Not with the eyes. (Flat. Naked. Round.) Does see make sense now? (Summer. Milan. Night.) Does slant make sense now? (Light. Naked. Moon.) Does lie make sense now? (Round. Naked. Eyes.) Does run make sense now? Adjectives are harder to explain.
The story ends with her at the edge of the footboard/baseboard. The story’s end in English is different from the story’s end in Italian. In English, this story ends with her running. Remember, run? (Round. Naked. Eyes.) In Italian, the story ends in the king-sized bed with a verb in the past participle conjugated with the verb to be. It is that gender agreement between verb and subject that makes the ending of this story in Italian different from the prudish English ending. Let us point out that he sees and she sees (Flat. Naked. Round.) that the meaning of the different ends is the same.
She does not love him, and he does not love her.
On the third day after they moved to the country he came walking back from the village carrying a basket of groceries and a twenty-four-yard coil of rope. She came out to meet him, wiping her hands on her green smock. Her hair was tumbled, her nose was scarlet with sunburn; he told her that already she looked like a born country woman. His gray flannel shirt stuck to him, his heavy shoes were dusty. She assured him he looked like a rural character in a play.
Had he brought the coffee? She had been waiting all day long for coffee. They had forgot it when they ordered at the store the first day.
Gosh, no, he hadn’t. Lord, now he’d have to go back. Yes, he would if it killed him. He thought, though, he had everything else. She reminded him it was only because he didn’t drink coffee himself. If he did he would remember it quick enough. Suppose they ran out of cigarettes? Then she saw the rope. What was that for? Well, he thought it might do to hang clothes on, or something. Naturally she asked him if he thought they were going to run a laundry? They already had a fifty-foot line hanging right before his eyes? Why, hadn’t he noticed it, really? It was a blot on the landscape to her.
He thought there were a lot of things a rope might come in handy for. She wanted to know what, for instance. He thought a few seconds, but nothing occurred. They could wait and see, couldn’t they? You need all sorts of strange odds and ends around a place in the country. She said, yes, that was so; but she thought just at that time when every penny counted, it seemed funny to buy more rope. That was all. She hadn’t meant anything else. She hadn’t just seen, not at first, why he felt it was necessary.
Well, thunder, he had bought it because he wanted to, and that was all there was to it. She thought that was reason enough, and couldn’t understand why he hadn’t said so, at first. Undoubtedly it would be useful, twenty-four yards of rope, there were hundreds of things, she couldn’t think of any at the moment, but it would come in. Of course. As he had said, things always did in the country.
But she was a little disappointed about the coffee, and oh, look, look, look at the eggs! Oh, my, they’re all running! What had he put on top of them? Hadn’t he known eggs mustn’t be squeezed? Squeezed, who had squeezed them, he wanted to know. What a silly thing to say. He had simply brought them along in the basket with the other things. If they got broke it was the grocer’s fault. He should know better than to put heavy things on top of eggs.
She believed it was the rope. That was the heaviest thing in the pack, she saw him plainly when he came in from the road, the rope was a big package on top of everything. He desired the whole wide world to witness that this was not a fact. He had carried the rope in one hand and the basket in the other, and what was the use of her having eyes if that was the best they could do for her?
Well, anyhow, she could see one thing plain: no eggs for breakfast. They’d have to scramble them now, for supper. It was too damned bad. She had planned to have steak for supper. No ice, meat wouldn’t keep. He wanted to know why she couldn’t finish breaking the eggs in a bowl and set them in a cool place.
Cool place! If he could find one for her, she’d be glad to set them there. Well, then, it seemed to him they might very well cook the meat at the same time they cooked the eggs and then warm up the meat for tomorrow. The idea simply choked her. Warmed-over meat, when they might as well have had it fresh. Second best and scraps and makeshifts, even to the meat! He rubbed her shoulder a little. It doesn’t really matter so much, does it, darling? Sometimes when they were playful, he would rub her shoulder and she would arch and purr. This time she hissed and almost clawed. He was getting ready to say that they could surely manage somehow when she turned on him and said, if he told her they could manage somehow she would certainly slap his face.
He swallowed the words red hot, his face burned. He picked up the rope and started to put it on the top shelf. She would not have it on the top shelf, the jars and tins belonged there; positively she would not have the top shelf cluttered up with a lot of rope. She had borne all the clutter she meant to bear in the flat in town, there was space here at least and she meant to keep things in order.
Well, in that case, he wanted to know what the hammer and nails were doing up there? And why had she put them there when she knew very well he needed that hammer and those nails upstairs to fix the window sashes? She simply slowed down everything and made double work on the place with her insane habit of changing things around and hiding them.
She was sure she begged his pardon, and if she had had any reason to believe he was going to fix the sashes this summer she would have left the hammer and nails right where he put them; in the middle of the bedroom floor where they could step on them in the dark. And now if he didn’t clear the whole mess out of there she would throw them down the well.
Oh, all right, all right – could he put them in the closet? Naturally not, there were brooms and mops and dustpans in the closet, and why couldn’t he find a place for his rope outside her kitchen? Had he stopped to consider there were seven God-forsaken rooms in the house, and only one kitchen?
He wanted to know what of it? And did she realize she was making a complete fool of herself? And what did she take him for, a three-year-old idiot? The whole trouble with her was she needed something weaker than she was to heckle and tyrannize over. He wished to God now they had a couple of children she could take it out on. Maybe he’d get some rest.
Her face changed at this, she reminded him he had forgot the coffee and had bought a worthless piece of rope. And when she thought of all the things they actually needed to make the place even decently fit to live in, well, she could cry, that was all. She looked so forlorn, so lost and despairing he couldn’t believe it was only a piece of rope that was causing all the racket. What was the matter, for God’s sake?
Oh, would he please hush and go away, and stay away, if he could, for five minutes? By all means, yes, he would. He’d stay away indefinitely if she wished. Lord, yes, there was nothing he’d like better than to clear out and never come back. She couldn’t for the life of her see what was holding him, then. It was a swell time. Here she was, stuck, miles from a railroad, with a half-empty house on her hands, and not a penny in her pocket, and everything on earth to do; it seemed the God-sent moment for him to get out from under. She was surprised he hadn’t stayed in town as it was until she had come out and done the work and got things straightened out. It was his usual trick.
It appeared to him that this was going a little far. Just a touch out of bounds, if she didn’t mind his saying so. Why the hell had he stayed in town the summer before? To do a half-dozen extra jobs to get the money he had sent her. That was it. She knew perfectly well they couldn’t have done it otherwise. She had agreed with him at the time. And that was the only time so help him he had ever left her to do anything by herself.
Oh, he could tell that to his great-grandmother. She had her notion of what had kept him in town. Considerably more than a notion, if he wanted to know. So, she was going to bring all that up again, was she? Well, she could just think what she pleased. He was tired of explaining. It may have looked funny but he had simply got hooked in, and what could he do? It was impossible to believe that she was going to take it seriously. Yes, yes, she knew how it was with a man: if he was left by himself a minute, some woman was certain to kidnap him. And naturally he couldn’t hurt her feelings by refusing!
Well, what was she raving about? Did she forget she had told him those two weeks alone in the country were the happiest she had known for four years? And how long had they been married when she said that? All right, shut up! If she thought that hadn’t stuck in his craw.
She hadn’t meant she was happy because she was away from him. She meant she was happy getting the devilish house nice and ready for him. That was what she had meant, and now look! Bringing up something she had said a year ago simply to justify himself for forgetting her coffee and breaking the eggs and buying a wretched piece of rope they couldn’t afford. She really thought it was time to drop the subject, and now she wanted only two things in the world. She wanted him to get that rope from underfoot, and go back to the village and get her coffee, and if he could remember it, he might bring a metal mitt for the skillets, and two more curtain rods, and if there were any rubber gloves in the village, her hands were simply raw, and a bottle of milk of magnesia from the drugstore.
He looked out at the dark blue afternoon sweltering on the slopes, and mopped his forehead and sighed heavily and said, if only she could wait a minute for anything, he was going back. He had said so, hadn’t he, the very instant they found he had overlooked it?
Oh, yes, well . . . run along. She was going to wash windows. The country was so beautiful! She doubted they’d have a moment to enjoy it. He meant to go, but he could not until he had said that if she wasn’t such a hopeless melancholiac she might see that this was only for a few days. Couldn’t she remember anything pleasant about the other summers? Hadn’t they ever had any fun? She hadn’t time to talk about it, and now would he please not leave that rope lying around for her to trip on? He picked it up, somehow it had toppled off the table, and walked out with it under his arm.
Was he going this minute? He certainly was. She thought so. Sometimes it seemed to her he had second sight about the precisely perfect moment to leave her ditched. She had meant to put the mattresses out to sun, if they put them out this minute they would get at least three hours, he must have heard her say that morning she meant to put them out. So of course he would walk off and leave her to it. She supposed he thought the exercise would do her good.
Well, he was merely going to get her coffee. A four-mile walk for two pounds of coffee was ridiculous, but he was perfectly willing to do it. The habit was making a wreck of her, but if she wanted to wreck herself there was nothing he could do about it. If he thought it was coffee that was making a wreck of her, she congratulated him: he must have a damned easy conscience.
Conscience or no conscience, he didn’t see why the mattresses couldn’t very well wait until tomorrow. And anyhow, for God’s sake, were they living in the house, or were they going to let the house ride them to death? She paled at this, her face grew livid about the mouth, she looked quite dangerous, and reminded him that housekeeping was no more her work than it was his: she had other work to do as well, and when did he think she was going to find time to do it at this rate?
Was she going to start on that again? She knew as well as he did that his work brought in the regular money, hers was only occasional, if they depended on what she made – and she might as well get straight on this question once for all!
That was positively not the point. The question was, when both of them were working on their own time, was there going to be a division of the housework, or wasn’t there? She merely wanted to know, she had to make her plans. Why, he thought that was all arranged. It was understood that he was to help. Hadn’t he always, in summers?
Hadn’t he, though? Oh, just hadn’t he? And when, and where, and doing what? Lord, what an uproarious joke!
It was such a very uproarious joke that her face turned slightly purple, and she screamed with laughter. She laughed so hard she had to sit down, and finally a rush of tears spurted from her eyes and poured down into the lifted corners of her mouth. He dashed towards her and dragged her up to her feet and tried to pour water on her head. The dipper hung by a string on a nail and he broke it loose. Then he tried to pump water with one hand while she struggled in the other. So he gave it up and shook her instead.
She wrenched away, crying out for him to take his rope and go to hell, she had simply given him up: and ran. He heard her high-heeled bedroom slippers clattering and stumbling on the stairs.
He went out around the house and into the lane; he suddenly realized he had a blister on his heel and his shirt felt as if it were on fire. Things broke so suddenly you didn’t know where you were. She could work herself into a fury about simply nothing. She was terrible, damn it: not an ounce of reason. You might as well talk to a sieve as that woman when she got going. Damned if he’d spend his life humoring her! Well, what to do now? He would take back the rope and exchange it for something else. Things accumulated, things were mountainous, you couldn’t move them or sort them out or get rid of them. They just lay and rotted around. He’d take it back. Hell, why should he? He wanted it. What was it anyhow? A piece of rope. Imagine anybody caring more about a piece of rope than about a man’s feelings. What earthly right had she to say a word about it? He remembered all the useless, meaningless things she bought for herself: Why? because I wanted it, that’s why! He stopped and selected a large stone by the road. He would put the rope behind it. He would put it in the tool-box when he got back. He’d heard enough about it to last him a life-time.
When he came back she was leaning against the post box beside the road waiting. It was pretty late, the smell of broiled steak floated nose high in the cooling air. Her face was young and smooth and fresh-looking. Her unmanageable funny black hair was all on end. She waved to him from a distance, and he speeded up. She called out that supper was ready and waiting, was he starved?
You bet he was starved. Here was the coffee. He waved it at her. She looked at his other hand. What was that he had there?
Well, it was the rope again. He stopped short. He had meant to exchange it but forgot. She wanted to know why he should exchange it, if it was something he really wanted. Wasn’t the air sweet now, and wasn’t it fine to be here?
She walked beside him with one hand hooked into his leather belt. She pulled and jostled him a little as he walked, and leaned against him. He put his arm clear around her and patted her stomach. They exchanged wary smiles. Coffee, coffee for the Ootsum-Wootsums! He felt as if he were bringing her a beautiful present.
He was a love, she firmly believed, and if she had had her coffee in the morning, she wouldn’t have behaved so funny . . . There was a whippoorwill still coming back, imagine, clear out of season, sitting in the crab-apple tree calling all by himself. Maybe his girl stood him up. Maybe she did. She hoped to hear him once more, she loved whippoorwills . . . He knew how she was, didn’t he?
Sure, he knew how she was.
Katherine Anne Porter, “Rope” from The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter. Copyright 1928 by Katherine Anne Porter. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of The Katherine Anne Porter Literary Trust.
Our school was named after Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, the first woman awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union. Therefore, we had endless lectures about her life: how Zoya did in school, what she read, what essays she wrote. This was supposed to inspire us, as we were told, though they didn’t explain inspire to do what exactly. But even without that explanation it was obvious — to do great deeds, what else? We Soviet children were always supposed to be ready for Heroic Deeds. Moreover, they told us all about Zoya’s heroic death, especially focusing on the torture that she was subjected to by the fascists — in great detail. They described how the Nazis pulled out her fingernails and burned her lips with a kerosene lamp, how they stripped her naked and barefoot and led her along the streets while soldiers spit at her and poured latrine slop on her, and then hanged her and desecrated her body — her left breast was cut off. For some strange reason, her feat — what exactly this young heroine did — was barely mentioned at all. She burned something down or blew something up — she was a partisan after all, and that’s what partisans did.
Once a year they took us to the museum in the village of Petrishchevo outside Moscow where she was killed. Not every school had the honor of being named after a hero — most schools didn’t have names at all — but nevertheless there were dozens of sister schools and Pioneer groups bearing the name of Kosmodemyanskaya all over the country. Delegations from provincial Russian cities and even from other Soviet republics paid regular visits to our school, and at the end of every visit we held ceremonial processions, parades, and concerts in the school auditorium. Since the number of poems, verses, speeches, songs, films and plays dedicated to Zoya by Soviet authors was endless, the program was rather packed, even though it didn’t change much from year to year.
At home my family didn’t like Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya. My father insisted that there weren’t and could not have been any partisans outside Moscow in 1941, that she didn’t exist, that she was a character made up by some correspondent in a front-line newspaper, Red Star probably, most likely a Jew, and publicized by the Stalinist propaganda machine for the completely obvious reasons.
“Not ‘most likely,’ but a Jew for sure, and not for the Red Star but for Pravda,” my mother would interject. “His name was Lidov and he wrote the first article with that famous photograph of the cut-off breast and the rope around her neck. But it’s not a photograph — it’s a fake, because how could they have photographed her if by the time the Red Army got there she’d already been dead and buried?”
“Don’t you see? They couldn’t have buried her because she never existed!” my father would shout back. “Instead of telling the truth about real life everyday heroism of millions of people who bore the burdens of the war with their sweat and blood and won, they make up fairy tales mixed up with the perverted fantasies of some pathetic sexual impotent! It’s pure pornography!” My mom would open her eyes wide and put her finger to her lips.
The older we got, the stranger the effect of those “memorial evenings” on us. The huge photograph of Zoya, excruciatingly beautiful, with her head thrown back, torn clothing and one breast — the remaining breast — with its pointed nipple catching your eye while the second — the one cut off — is terrifying and repulsive. Her hair splayed on the snow, her eyes closed — the image upset us 12-year-olds in some gripping, mysterious way. Something dark and hot rose from the depths of our bellies and our heads spun…
Meanwhile, on stage an older student read an excerpt from an article by Alexander Dovzhenko, her voice cracking: “Zoya is cold. Her hands, swollen from the cold and beatings, are clenched into fists. Her bare feet have turned black from the horrible night in the freezing cold. Her lips, swollen and bitten and bloody: two hundred blows by German belts throughout the night tried to beat a confession from those tender lips, but to no avail. She didn’t cry out, she didn’t weep, she didn’t moan.”
During one of those evenings I couldn’t stand the stuffy room, the pathos and those mysterious things happening to my body, and escaped the auditorium. I don’t know how, but I found myself next to the empty gym locker room. There I ran into Sasha Zorin and Sergei Fadeyev from our class, who also ran away from the concert and were aimlessly wandering about the school. The small locker room was blocked off by a clothes rack and a tall cupboard for shoes. Without saying a word, we moved quickly to the corner by the far wall and began to feverishly examine each other’s bodies. Their hands fumbled, unhooked, lifted up, pulled down. Mine struggled with idiotic buckles and school belts until the boys helped me with them. We touched, stroked, groped, and squeezed, all without a word, trying not to look each other in the eye. I was ashamed to look them in the face, they also tried to look away, but our hands and bodies so closely pressed together knew no shame or embarrassment. We were so caught up in what we were doing that we didn’t notice the janitress standing before us: a tiny, hunchbacked old woman, with constantly rheumy, pale blue eyes.
Finally she regained her ability to speak. “What are you up to, you little wretches? Just you wait!”
She shook her wet floor cloth and drenched us in a stream of spray. The cold, filthy water instantly brought us to our senses. We jumped up and ran off in different directions.
The barrel of a German Tiger pointed straight at me. It was a terrifying machine — a huge, clumsy, disgusting tank. The personification of evil .I shuddered. “Death to the Fascist Invaders!” I shouted as loud as I could and kicked the tank’s caterpillar track. That gave me some relief. The spring that had been tightly wound in my stomach over the last few days relaxed a bit. There was no one around, and I could have even climbed up on the tank if I wanted to. That I didn’t want, instead I had a whim to look down the barrel which I wasn’t tall enough to do. There were some boulders scattered around, so I rolled one closer and climbed it up. One of Dostoevsky’s characters, Svidrigailov, was afraid that eternity was a sooty jar filled with spiders. The jar wasn’t too bad, compared to that terrifying, frigid, all-encompassing darkness.
It was drizzling even though the radio had promised dry and warm weather. An interesting choice to spend holidays — wandering alone in the rain, examining old tanks and thinking about eternity.
“Stop that smoking right away! Girl, I’m talking to you!” A fat elderly woman was trotting up to me at full speed, one hand supporting her chest while the other one extended out to me, as if she was going to yank the cigarette out of my mouth.
I retreated the way I came, climbed over the fence and hid in the woods, figuring she was unlikely to chase after me. I probably took a wrong turn, and instead of coming out in the dacha settlement, I just went deeper into the woods. After wandering around for about 20 minutes I realized that I had no idea where I was. I wasn’t afraid of getting lost — all around there were dacha villages and I’d get to people at some point, but the whole situation pissed me off. Why should I be alone again, and what was I doing in these woods?! It was all Alyona’s fault. She showed up right before the holidays. As if nothing had happened. And she asked me out to the dacha. Since she had gone to live with her father and his new family, we hadn’t seen each other for several months and didn’t even talk on the phone. She wouldn’t call me, and I didn’t know her new number.
The last we saw each other was on her birthday. Sixteen years old — that’s a big deal. She invited just about everyone: our entire old class — by then we’d both left, me to a medical vocational school, her to a fancy charter school. She invited rich kids from her new class; street toughs that made the juvie home weep; friends of friends who crashed the party. The door to the apartment was left wide open and new people streamed in, mostly in big crowds. I had hoped that Alyona and I would spend the evening by ourselves, having a heart-to-heart chat the way we used to, but she yakked non-stop with her new girlfriends, laughed at stupid jokes and then disappeared from the apartment altogether — she ran out with the juvies to ride on a motorcycle.
Since the start of the school year I hadn’t seen any of my old classmates — let alone I barely saw Alyona — and I didn’t miss them much. Out of boredom, I decided to show off a bit – in fact, it was not my intention, it just happened. They all stared at me as if I were an alien from the outer space, like they had expected me to put on a show. “You want songs? I’ve got‘em for you!” I spun out medical tales and they listened with their mouths open. Everything fell into place at that moment: they were silly little schoolchildren who’d never seen real life, and I was the experienced she-wolf who’d been there and done that. I got carried away. I talked and talked, washing down each new story with a glass of Kavkaz port wine. I talked about the morgue, hospital geriatric wards where old ladies lived for months until they died of dementia or bedsores; about the smells that stick to you constantly no matter how you try to kill them with cigarettes and alcohol; about the emergency ward of hospitals where the ambulances bring patients off the street at night — mostly drunk men who collapse in the snow and fall asleep. Oh my God, how they cry when they wake up and realize that their extremities have frozen during the night and now several fingers have to be amputated. How could they work and support their families?
Once — that night the orderlies gathered up all the bits of soap and melt it all down in a huge vat and the fumes and stench made you want to kill yourself — a couple was brought in. Both of them were drunk. She had a knife wound and his hands were burned so badly that the skin was coming off in sheets and he had burn spots on his face. Typical case — they had a fight over booze. He stabbed her with the knife and she responded by splashing him with boiling water, but he had time to cover his face with his hands. That was, of course, just an educated guess since they refused to give each other up. The guy stood by his story and wouldn’t budge: she fell and stabbed herself with the knife. He rushed to help her and knocked over a pot of boiling soup on himself. No one took care of them. They were assigned to different rooms, the nurses argued, the doctors yelled at the ambulance medics for bringing such lowlifes into the hospital, and the orderlies went off to boil more soap. That’s when we heard moans and cries. We ran up and saw a bloody trail going down the hall. We followed it to the room where we’d left the burnt boyfriend. It turned out she had crawled to him on her stomach — our Juliet couldn’t stand on her feet — and now they loved each other. They shouted in passion, moaned from their wounds, or, well, maybe it was the other way around. The orderlies dragged them away from one another, of course. We called the police.
I woke up the next morning in a closet. What happened and how I ended up spending the night in the closet I couldn’t remember. Alyona cleared the situation for me.
The night before I had become offended — no one could understand who I was mad at and what for — but I suddenly started to yell all kinds of curses at them and threatened to beat them up. I chased them all into the kitchen and threw boots from the hallway at them. I picked up a rolling pin and ran after my childhood friend, the one who had once been Tyl when we played “The Legend of the Glorious Adventures of Tyl Ulenspiegel,” but now was a scraggly freak with a shaved head who had blurted out something about Jews. Outside I’d had it out with the juvies and their protectors and then lay in the snow for a while to chill out — not on my own initiative, of course. Wet and miserable I came back to the apartment, said that I was leaving, walked inside the closet and closed the door behind me. Alyona decided to leave me alone, and later when she looked through a crack she saw that I was asleep.
We sat for a while and drank. Then I helped her clean up the mess in the apartment and went home. A few days later she moved in with her father.
Five of us had gone out to the dacha: me, Alyona, a friend from our old class, Nadya Velichko, the owner of the dacha, Vera and Yegor. We met on the train platform. Alyona had talked my ear off about Vera and especially Yegor, the kids of her father’s wife, but I’d never met them before. Vera — a tall, big-boned girl with a face as flat as a rag doll — never even glanced in my direction. Or maybe she did, but no one could see her eyes behind those dark sunglasses she wouldn’t take off. Yegor smoked, spit on the platform and then rubbed the spit with the toe of his shoe. Contrary to Alyona’s description, he looked nothing like Ivan Karamazov. There he was, a morose, gloomy guy with a strong jawline, a bull neck and shoulders so wide that they made him look shorter than he was. He didn’t say hello, just looked me over from head to toe and turned away. Delicate restless soul; a maverick, an intellectual and a philosopher —where was all that? I knew, of course, that Alyona was madly in love with him as long as she could remember, but really — how can you deceive yourself that much?!
In the commuter train Yegor hit on Velichko and ignored Alyona completely. Velichko giggled and peeped at Alyona. Vera didn’t say a word the whole trip, she just looked out the window. Every ten minutes Alyona dragged me out to the tambour to smoke, complained about Yegor and asked me to be careful with Vera. “She’s going through a really bad patch. You see, she went with her father on a field trip and started up an affair with one of his grad students. She got knocked up, and back in Moscow he dumped her. So she had to have an abortion. Her father didn’t want to get involved and was really mad at Vera. And then at the exact same time, I moved in and Yegor dropped out of school. Their mother thought that I was the bad influence and turned my father against me, and they ended up kicking me out back to my mother’s.”
Velichko’s dacha turned out to be a tiny wooden cabin that five people could fit into only lying on their sides in sleeping bags. The plan was to go for a walk in the woods, maybe rent a boat and paddle around the lake, and then in the evening make a fire on the lakeshore and roast potatoes. We brought booze, but for food we had only dry crackers and canned fish. We had a drink. Yegor blushed, Vera paled, Velichko got happy and Alyona got really sad. No one wanted to go for a walk any more. Yegor and Velichko disappeared. After them, Alyona vanished. I walked around but I didn’t find them anywhere. I returned to the cabin but there was absolutely nothing to do. Vera had her nose buried in the book and wasn’t interested in conversation. I think she hadn’t said a single word since morning. I was dying of boredom and annoyance.
“I guess I’ll go for a walk or something…” I got up. She didn’t even lift her head. I went out. The dacha village had a single street, and along it I walked. On the either side of the street were wooden houses, hawthorn shrubs, and birches — a typical village outside Moscow. Our family didn’t have a dacha.
I grew up as a city kid and never went outside the city for a picnic or to pick mushrooms. I spent the entire school year in Moscow, and in the summer we went to Lithuania or the Black Sea. The houses were no more in sight and I went through the woods. The path led me to a large meadow surrounded by a low wicker fence. Right there in front of me there were several tanks and mortars from the war.
“Hi. What are you doing sitting here all alone and sad in the rain? Are you lost?”
Two guys in their early twenties stood before me, most likely students. They looked like perfect three-A guys: A-students-athletes-activists. One was medium height, the other was taller, both with open faces, rosy cheeks, light brown hair, and smiling eyes. Normal guys — no hint of threat coming from them. It turned out that they’d been observing me since I was on the tank site, and then lost sight of me. The students volunteered to walk me back to the village. Along the way they told me that they were living at the campsite, going kayaking in the reservoir and rivers feeding into it, sometimes setting up tents and sleeping under the open sky, going fishing. Okay, so I was in the woods outside Moscow for the first time in five years and had never even been to a camp ground. The romance of hiking, freshly made fish soup, songs sung to a guitar around the campfire, on the water in rafts and kayaks, climbing mountains, chasing the mists into the taiga, and all the while being just a delightful bit anti-establishment — all this was a parallel reality to my life, something I read about in newspapers or heard about from people I didn’t know well. My parents thought this way of leisure to be utterly Soviet, therefore they didn’t approve of it, like they never approved of all things Soviet. The people who went on hikes were Soviet techie intellectuals, a social group my father couldn’t stand. He called them and their culture “educatedness.” They were, in his view, strong supporters of the regime, and that’s why he loathed them. “A simple working class guy lives a hard life. He doesn’t see anything beyond and can’t do a thing. That’s the way his parents lived, and their parents before them. I don’t have anything against them. But engineers and technical workers know better, are endowed with some grey matter — in any case they’re smart enough to get an engineering degree. But they don’t want to use their brains to think and they’re afraid of having their own opinions. Vulgar, law-abiding, conservative masses that will never give birth to anything alive… They go on hikes and then, sitting around the camp fire drinking vodka and strumming guitars, they rip into members of the Politburo, discuss how great Tarkovsky is because they’ve never seen anything else, and think that they’re heroes and intellectuals. And then they go back to work and attend Party meetings, vote “yes” and sign letters denouncing Israeli Zionism and American imperialism. Their only thought: obey the authorities always in everything and respect their bosses.” I didn’t see anything wrong with camping. I mean, if a Soviet citizen doesn’t have any chance to see the Grand Canyon or coral reefs, what’s he supposed to do? Not get off the sofa like my father as a sign of protest? And Tarkovsky I loved. Alyona and I stood in line for hours to buy tickets for a half-underground screening of one of his films at the “Vstryecha” movie house. We got there at 6 a.m. thinking that we’d be first in line, when suddenly a guy emerged from the icy fog and wrote a number on the palm of our hands with an indelible ink pen: It was like 300-something. In the end we got in to see the film, but Alyona was so frozen by the point she entered the hall, that she thawed out, and fell asleep.
On the way to the dacha one of the students fell back, and the taller one, Oleg, walked me home. I liked him. He was outgoing, good-natured, and athletic but all in good measure. Not like Yegor, being shorter he made an impression of enormous physical strength.
“Want to take a boat ride around the lake tonight?”
I froze. That summer I was turning 16. He was 23. Tall, good looking — you wouldn’t be embarrassed to introduce him to your girlfriends. I hadn’t been spoiled with male attention. I mean, I had many male friends, but no one had asked me out on a date. And it would count a date if the two of you took a boat ride in the moonlight, wouldn’t it? Of course I hadn’t told him how old I was. I lied that I was in the first year of med school. He believed me — why wouldn’t he? I always looked older than I was, I had an adult face, was pretty tall, and I had big breasts. There was a long silence that Oleg took for a sign of doubt.
“If you want, we can go out to an island. The locals say that sometimes at night there’s a strange glow and weird noises there. It’s a paranormal zone.”
“Yeah, right, ‘paranormal’… The villagers just see things when they’re drunk. All of them make moonshine. My friend who has a house here told me all about it. She says that a lot of them have seen a Yeti in the woods. Can you believe it – a Yeti? We even wanted to go look for him. As a joke, I mean. I didn’t see any Yetis when I walked around.”
“A Yeti —that’s an old wife’s tale I’d guess. But at our camp site they even organized a search team that went out in the woods. They didn’t find a thing but they all came back scared. There’s something weird around here. As far as the island goes — I talked about it with some perfectly sane people and they all described pretty much the same thing. And they don’t know each other, so they couldn’t have come up with a story together. It would be interesting to take a look. But if you’re scared, we won’t go out on the island. We’ll just take a boat ride.” We agreed that he’d come for me at eight.
There was still no one home except Vera. She was stuck to her book and gave no signs of life. I decided it was best to think of her as a piece of furniture and I hadn’t started to talk to the furniture yet. Maybe when I got old, out of loneliness and senile dementia I’d start talking with a chest of drawers or a bookcase, but for now I didn’t feel the urge. Velichko’s rubber boots came in handy, and just in case I put on Yegor’s warm jacket — he had gone out lightly dressed in just a sweater. I put a bottle of wine in my bag along with some crackers and two wedges of soft cheese.
“Where is it you are going?” Vera asked, like it was alright. I was so shocked I almost choked myself with Yegor’s scarf that I also decided to borrow and was wrapping around my neck.
“Oh wow. I’ve never seen a talking stool before!”
“What?” she said, squinting at me.
“Adieu, ma jolie,” I said. I don’t know why I suddenly switched to French but if I’d just cursed her to hell and back it wouldn’t have made a bigger impression on Vera. But despite that she went out after me into the yard. Oleg was waiting for me by the gate.
“And who’s that?”
I decided that she wasn’t the one to report to so I said nothing.
“Hey, where are you taking her? Listen, dude, I’m talking to you!”
“My name is Oleg. I’m a grad student at the Moscow Energy Institute, living at the campgrounds, and we’re going for a ride on the lake.”
“On the lake in this cold? Don’t even think about it! Grad students ought to sit and study and not try to charm the pants off of a minor.” She walked right up to the fence, and now they were less than a meter apart.
I grabbed him by the sleeve and started to drag him away from the fence. “Why are you even talking to her? Let’s go already!” Thank God she didn’t run after us, but she had such an expression on her face that she just might have.
“What a tough girl! For a second I thought she’d hit me. Is she your older sister?”
“Oh, don’t pay any attention to her. She’s going through a rough patch.” I decided not to set him straight. Let him think that I wasn’t here alone.
“Why would she call you a minor? How old are you anyway?”
“Come on, have you never met an older sister before? She’s six years older than me and she thinks that I’m a little girl. My mother’s sister is also six years older than her and she still treats her like a baby.”
“She’s 24? Who’d think, she’s my age. I wouldn’t say she’s older than 20.”
“I missed the bit when we decided to talk about her. Maybe she is the one you want to invite to take a spin on the lake instead of me?”
Oleg laughed and pulled me to him. I pressed my nose into the rough rubberized material of his jacket.
The village seemed to have died. We didn’t meet a single person on the way. We went through the birch grove, turned into the woods and silently walked along the path until we got to wooden planks that took us right to the water. We walked a bit along the shore until we got to a sandy beach. Oleg threw down his heavy backpack, pulled out a folded up rubber boat and started to pump it up.
When it was ready, this rubber thing looked to me like a blow-up mattress with high sides. It sure didn’t look like a boat. It was oval without a stern or bow.
“Are you sure it will hold us both?”
“It’s for a man-and-a-half, like for an adult and a child. I’m average weight – 70 kilograms. You probably weigh around 45, I’d guess.
“We round up and get 120 kilograms. The boat can hold up to 150 kilograms, so we’ve even got a margin for error. Hop in. Sit at the bottom. I get the seat. Don’t think that I’m not a gentleman. It’s just that that’s where the oarlocks are. Unless you want to row?”
I shook my head. I didn’t want to row. Nor did I want to climb into the boat. Mist hung over the lake and damp cold rose from the water. The moon hid behind the clouds as the gloomy wall of woods on the shores blended with the black surface of the water, which reflected, upside down, the black, starless sky.
“Are there waves? We’ll capsize.”
“There won’t be any waves, don’t worry.”
I couldn’t bring up any other excuse, so, with a heavy sigh, I climbed into the boat and sat down on the bottom as instructed. Oleg pushed the boat into the water, moved it a bit deeper, and then jumped in himself. He quickly set up the oars, rowed powerfully a couple of times, and we sailed into the middle of the lake. The boat sunk down a bit under our weight. Water didn’t seep in — the sides were pretty high — but it still seemed to me that half my body was under water.
“Why are you squirming around? Are you uncomfortable?”
“Not uncomfortable exactly, but you know — it’s really cold. It feels like I’m sitting bare-assed on a block of ice.”
“Yeah, the water is still very cold. The last ice has just melted. I didn’t think of that. Here, sit on the backpack.”
After manipulations with the backpack — I was afraid that we’d capsize for sure — I got more or less settled and looked around. A breeze sprang up and blew away the mist. The smooth watery surface spread out ahead as far as the eye could see. The moon, as if on command, came out from behind the clouds and shone a silver path on the water. And then everything was fine. This was exactly how I had imagined night on the lake.
The silence was broken by female voices screaming my name at the top of their lungs. First they sounded distant, and then seemed to come closer and closer. Four figures stood on the shore. And they didn’t resemble mermaids.
“Hey, you there! Come back right now!” Yegor shouted with his frightful deep voice.
“Is that you?” Alyona screamed with such emotion that I had to reply.
I held up my hands to my mouth to make a megaphone. “I’m here! We’re going to the island, to the paranormal zone!” An echo ricocheted over the water.
“Oleg wants to show me the paranormal zone. Go home!”
“You idiot! I know exactly what he wants to show you! Row to the shore, you moron!” Yegor cut in.
“Alyona, take them away! I’m on a date, what’s wrong with you? Are you crazy?”
Oleg had frozen with the oars suspended over the water and spun his head to look at me and then the group on the shore.
“Why aren’t you moving, Oleg? Come on, let’s go. Don’t pay attention to them.” I had to even nudge him a bit to shake him out of his stupor. But he didn’t move.
“Listen, you piece of crap, either you come back to shore right away and then I’ll let you walk away…”
“And if we don’t? If we sail on? What then?” Oleg suddenly blurted out in a higher pitch voice than he’d used before.
“Why are you even talking to them? What are you asking? Keep rowing!”
“Who is he — your boyfriend? Your brother? Is your father going to come down here, too?” Now Oleg didn’t seem so attractive any more. His features got sharp and he reminded me of a big squirrel. His glance was squirrelly, too — prickly.
“He’s no one to me! I met him today for the first time in my life. Give me the oars and I’ll row.” I tried to take the oars from Oleg but then I plopped back down on the backpack.
“If you don’t come back here right now, right this instant, I’ll find you at the campsite and you’ll be sorry you were ever born!” Yegor had walked up to the very edge of the water. For a second I had the crazy thought that he’d fling himself in the water and swim after us. It looked like Oleg had the same thought, because to be on the safe side he rowed us further away.
“You are so dead! Row back here right now!” Vera screamed hysterically and ran flat-out into the lake, spraying everyone else with a fountain of water. Alyona and Velichko grabbed her to keep her from going further.
I watched in horror as they fought with each other, up to their knees in the icy water, illuminated by the cold moonlight. Had they all lost their minds, all four of them at once?
Oleg stood up in the boat. “Get out of the water and walk back three meters from the shore! Until you get out I won’t move!”
I didn’t say anything. It was clear he’d made a decision and it was useless to argue with him. One more nutcase, up to five. Was the moon affecting them all like this? Then why was I still normal?
They got out of the water. Yegor sat on the sand, took off his wet socks, and put his sneakers on bare feet. Vera shook out the water from her boots.
“Walk back and stand,” Oleg shouted again.
When they moved back, we rowed up. A few meters from the shore Oleg stopped.
“What? Are you kidding? Row in closer.”
“I row in and they will jump at me.”
“No one’s going to touch you. They’re standing far back.”
He reluctantly drew closer to the shore, just about pushed me out of the boat and started rowing so hard that with a few strong strokes he was in the center of the lake again. He didn’t stop there. He went even farther, to where the moon was going down over the woods. I turned around and dragged myself toward shore. No one said a word to me. I didn’t speak either. Yegor and Vera went ahead, Velichko followed ten steps behind them, and Alyona and I took up the rear of the procession.
“This place is creepy and the woods are so… it feels like someone’s watching you, but when you look around, no one’s there,” Alyona said, finally.
“They’re just woods,” I said, glad to break the oppressive silence. “Where the devil were you all day? What were you doing the whole time?”
“Listen, it was strange. There are these old, overgrown tracks running through the woods, and no one remembers anymore where they went, and now they just break off. Velichko says that all kinds of mysterious stuff happens out there. She took Yegor to take a look, and I went after them.”
“That Oleg said something about that, too. What stuff happens here, exactly?”
“Oh, like watches suddenly stop and then start going backwards or there are loud voices, noises, like there’s a big crowd right next to you but there’s actually nothing around.”
“Did you hear anything or see it with your own eyes?”
She shook her head.
“None of us was wearing a watch…”
“So there was nothing there and nothing could be. The most that could happen is that someone could be raped.”
“Funny that you should say that.”
“Because it was you who went off with a complete stranger to God knows where. You don’t think that’s weird? You weren’t afraid that you’d be raped?”
“Oleg is a normal guy. No, I mean he’s a jerk, of course, as it turned out in the end, but he doesn’t look like a rapist at all.”
“But in any case, do you really think it’s okay to go off alone with a stranger?”
“While running up and threatening to drown a guy for asking me out on a date is okay? Forget it, moving right along… But why did you invite me anyway, if I’m here like the fifth wheel? I didn’t have anything to do all day.”
“No one planned on going off for long! We drank a little bit and then…” Alyona stammered and then fell silent. I waited for the story to continue, but the pause dragged on. In the end, she shook her head, like she was shaking off a thought that bothered her. “You’d laugh anyway. The thing is, it turned out stupid.”
We stood on the porch. Everyone else had already gone inside. Alyona looked at me questioningly.
“Inside, don’t pick a fight, who knows what might happen. Vera is really, really mad at you.”
“She’s mad at me, is she? Is she sick in the head? What did I do to her? For the whole day she made a show of not talking to me and then wrecked my date. I should be mad at her!”
“Don’t provoke her, okay? Promise?” She took my hand in her hand, chapped and red from the cold, and held it to her chest.
“I solemnly swear as I stand before my comrades!” I said like a good little Communist Pioneer. “Let’s go inside and warm up. I’m freaking frozen.”
Yegor and Velichko were fiddling with the stove, a terrifying looking ancient wrought-iron stove on legs. I’d only seen one in the movies, those about the war.
“They won’t be able to light it,” Alyona whispered in my ear.
It was like she was clairvoyant. Despite all their efforts, the flame didn’t want to catch and the smoke was bothering my throat. A couple of pairs of socks and pants were found in Velichko’s stuff to change out of wet clothing, and boots had been stuffed with crinkled up newspaper and placed close to the stove, just in case. Yegor didn’t give up. He continued to tinker with the stove. Now the flame didn’t die out immediately but held on for a few minutes. It was a bit warmer and almost stopped smoking. Alyona wrapped herself in a throw and fell asleep. Vera dozed next to her. Velichko left Yegor to figure out the stove by himself, dragged me into a far cubbyhole and started whispering furiously, practically smashing her moist lips into my ear.
“What a day! If I had known it would be like this, I’d never have come. I went for a walk and Yegor came after me, with Alyona right behind him. You can’t believe what happened. She made an incredible mess of that train car!”
“What train car?” I asked loudly.
“Quiet!” Velichko grabbed me by the arm. “What are you shouting for? She’ll wake up,” — nodding at the dozing Vera. “It was a regular train car, for cargo, standing in the woods on an old railroad line. When the rain started we climbed in. I had never gone in there before and was afraid. You know, I thought it would be all crapped up inside, but it wasn’t so bad — just dusty. Then suddenly Alyona barfs. I’ve never seen anything like it. She puked all over the car — the walls, the ceiling— everything! Every time it seemed like she had stopped, she’d start up again. She even fainted. I was holding her head while Yegor hovered around outside because he couldn’t stand the smell of vomit. While this was going on he drank a bottle of vodka all by himself, and he was okay, just real gloomy. It was awful.”
“Yeah, like in his regular life he is Mr. Sunshine.”
Yegor squatted in front of the stove. Red shadows fell across his face. As soon as he heard our last words, he stood up and walked over to us.
“Looks like it’s drawing. I fiddled with the damper to the chimney… but the wood is really damp. Do you have any gas oil around?”
“There’s probably a fuel can in the shed. What do you need it for?”
“We got to soak bricks in the gas oil and then use them for heat. Two bricks will last for a long time — all night. That’s what they do up north. So…” He turned to me. “Take off my jacket and I’ll go look for bricks.” I’d forgotten that I was still wearing his jacket and scarf.
He put on his jacket, slipped into Velichko’s father’s boots, and went outside.
“You hear that — heat the house with bricks?” Velichko made circles with her finger by her temple. “The whole family is like that! We barely dragged Alyona home and that nutcase goes on a tear! She says that you were taken away by a maniac. Actually, they say people here do weird stuff. Yegor didn’t want to go but she made him. Who’s going to argue with her? I tell you — I’m scared of her!
We giggled but quickly fell silent. Vera sat on the daybed with her legs tucked under her. She stared at me, her chin jutted out. For the first time I noticed how much she and Yegor looked alike.
“What a rude bitch — you think it’s funny? Like everything is just fine? You slut — you ruined the whole weekend. You followed your pussy and we had to run and save you.”
“My, what a language, and coming from a literature student! Who asked you to save me? You should have minded your own business and not stuck you nose where it didn’t belong.”
“Aren’t you brave! A regular Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya!”
Oh, she should not have dragged Kosmodemyanskaya into it. Zoya and I did not get along. Especially since that memorable evening in the sixth grade.
“That’s right: Zoya is a hero and you’re a whore.”
Vera stared at me with hatred.
“You’re the whore! And your Zoya is a hero the kind of Pavlik Morozov or the Young Guard,” – I fired back.
“In what sense?”
“In this sense: No one knows what really happened there. But all that stuff they shove down our throats in school is a load of crap. It is all fake, propaganda. Not a word of it is true!”
“Oh, how fascinating! Tell us all about it. What is true, in your opinion?
“That Zoya, if she had even existed at all, didn’t fight the Germans. She burned down villages, the houses of Russian peasants, forcing them out on the street in the freezing cold in the middle of winter. Because Stalin gave a secret order to burn down all the villages and all the houses so that the Germans would freeze outside. It didn’t bother him in the least how our people would survive: old people, women and children. In Petrishchevo there weren’t even any Germans…”
“Shut up, you snake! I hate your race, you disgusting brat! You, stinking Jews, walk on our soil and poison the air with your stinking breath. We were fighting, we shed our blood on this land while you were feeding your bellies in Tashkent. And now, you worm, instead of saying ‘thank you,’ you drag our heroes through the mud.”
I couldn’t catch my breath. I hadn’t seen that coming. I could tell her that both my grandfathers had fought in the war from start to finish and that my grandmother had been evacuated to a defense factory in Siberia, but my tongue was caught in my throat. I was so furious that I couldn’t utter a word to prove something to her, to justify myself. I stared at the floor just so I didn’t have to look at her contorted face. A shadow went by and I was hit with a wave of cold and the smell of tobacco.
“Because of you, because of your kind —“
She suddenly began to choke on her words and there was a crash of something heavy falling on the floor. I raised my head. Yegor had knocked Vera off her feet, he was leaning over her body lying spread-eagle on the floor with his hands around her throat.
“Shut up, shut the fuck up! I don’t want to hear another word out of you. Got it? Keep your mouth shut. One more sound and I’ll choke you like a rat.”
Alyona woke up, sat up on the couch and watched them with indifference that was incomprehensible to me, as if there was nothing the least bit out of the ordinary in the scene unfolding before her. A couple of meters from her Vera writhed and kicked her feet on the floor, but she couldn’t get out of Yegor’s grip.
“Calm down and stop squirming, it’s only making it worse. Just lie there. If you get it, pound on the floor.
Vera squirmed for a moment longer and then did what he said. Yegor unclenched his fist, stood up, and yanked his sister up from the floor. They stared at each other without saying a word. Then she went and sat down again on the couch. Yegor turned to me. His gaze sent me right out of the house. To me he wouldn’t give a chance to surrender. He’ll choke me to death for sure. Velichko ran out after me.
“The last train to Moscow leaves in 15 minutes. If we run, we can make it.”
We went to bed in total silence. Alyona stayed where she was on the daybed, wrapped up in a throw. Velichko opened up the couch for her and Vera. Next to the door was a rickety child’s bed that you could lie on if you pulled your legs up and tucked yourself into a ball. A draft came in through a crack under the door and I couldn’t get warm no matter how I tried to wrap myself in the old sheepskin coat reeking of mothballs that Velichko had given me for a blanket. Yegor lay down on the floor in the bedroom.
I woke up from someone tugging at my shoulder. I struggled to open my gluey eyes. In front of me there was a white shape but I couldn’t see who it was in the darkness. “Get up, wake up,” said a female voice. It must be Alyona, or maybe Vera. Could she really have woken up in the middle of the night and wanted to go outside to have it out with me while everyone was asleep? I sat up in the bed. I had a terrible headache and my throat was dry. I stood up and wanted to go to the kitchen to drink some water, but the darkness swirled around me, my rubbery legs collapsed and I fell down on the floor. I didn’t feel any pain from the fall and just blacked out. The same voice brought me back to consciousness: “Wake up! Scream! Wake them all up!” I tried to scream but my tongue wouldn’t obey me. Her face appeared before me, but it was like my eyes were filled with sand and I couldn’t make her out. I wasn’t able to understand what was going on, and there was a foggy emptiness in my head. I started to crawl and crashed into Yegor. He sat up, moaned and grabbed his head. “Alyona!” I dragged myself along the floor to the couch, got up on my knees, and saw Vera lying with her eyes closed. Velichko on the other side of her, turned to the wall.
“Vera!” I called out. She abruptly opened her eyes and suddenly let out a single-note scream. Her body went into convulsions, and then the shaking stopped just as suddenly as it had begun. She opened her mouth soundlessly like a fish. But, thank God, her scream woke up Velichko, who jerked upright on the couch, her eyes wide open, and looked not at me but off to the side somewhere.
“Open the door and air out the house!” the voice said. I didn’t understand why we had to do it, but I used my last strength to crawl to the door. My power began to fade away and my movements became more and more sluggish. When I got to the door I reached up to the handle and turned it. Leaning on the door with all my weight, I fell out, slid down the steps and fell on the frost-covered ground.
The cold woke me up. I was shivering so much that my teeth chattered. There was still noise in my ears, like voices drifting in through cotton. I tried to get up. The voices stopped, and someone carefully and tenderly helped me to sit up. I looked around.
The five of us sat together by the fence, not far from the house: pale, unkempt, shaking from the cold but yet alive. They looked at me lovingly, even Vera.
“You were great! If you hadn’t woken up and then gotten everyone else up, we would have all died of carbon monoxide poisoning for sure,” Yegor said as he lit a cigarette and handed it to me. “We ought to throw that stove into the river. Nadya, you’ll thank me for it later.”
“Don’t even think of it. My father will kill me. It’s a good stove, it’s been here working for a hundred years and everything was fine, until you started tinkering around with that damper.”
“It wasn’t me.” It was hard to speak, like I’d chewed sandpaper.
“I wasn’t me who woke you up. It was Zoya.”
“What Zoya?” they asked, bewildered.
“Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya. She came in, poked me and told me to wake everyone else up. I didn’t understand why. There was no smoke, no smell. But she told me to and so I did.”
They stared at me without saying a word.
“Why do you think it was Zoya?”Alyona asked me carefully.
“Who else? She was wearing one of those side caps, you know, with a red star.”
“Uh-huh,” Vera chortled. “And they say I am the crazy one.”
Yuda is banging the wall with his pillow; Moishe is switching the lights off and on again. I lay silent, not involved in the nightly disturbance. “He’s coming!” calls Zvika, the sun-shield watcher. We get under our blankets, pretending to be asleep. The door is opened, and my father peeps in. He stands silent in the doorway, listening. A loud girl’s laugh is coming from the room by the showers. He leaves the door open and rushes there. Moishe goes to the door, looks left and whispers: “He’s in the girls’ room.” Zvika takes off his blanket, stands up and signals Hai through the sun-shields that it’s their turn now. The stamping of the iron bed’s legs on the tiles thunders and then stops abruptly as my father’s footsteps rush there. I can visualize the ongoing signals through the sun-shield. “Give up, please.” I send a telepathic plea to my dad, “for the both of us.”
My father is on duty tonight, for the first time in this building, trying to enforce the “all lights out” policy. It’s a thankless job, trying to overcome 24 nine year old kids in six rooms who are not willing to go to sleep yet. In addition to the numerical advantage and youthful energy, the sun-shield advantage is on our side. It’s an elongated niche along the entire building. Blinds were probably not available at the time, so they built a concrete casing around the windows to keep away the sunlight. They did not realize that they created a back door corridor for us to send signals and crawl on all fours from one room to another.
In the short silence I pray that the revolt will end. My father has no chance against us. We the kids have already defeated: Berman, the smart electrician, who pulled out the fuse, Waxman, the lenient, who left after five minutes, and even Zuckerman, the cruel, who had no dilemma about tweaking someone even without a proof. Some fathers use a moment of silence to give up and leave, but my father is strict. Zvika checks the sun-shield and whispers: “It’s our turn now.” The room is dark but I can feel the looks of my three roommates. “Come on,” Yuda whispers. I feel bad for dad, but I have no choice. Any kid who does not take part in the disturbance when his father is on duty is boycotted for an entire month. Esther is the only one who does not have to participate in the nightly disturbances. Her family joined the Kibbutz only six months ago. Every night, when everyone finally goes to sleep, she cries in the sun-shield. She knows that her parents reside nearby and surely can hear her cry, and she can’t understand why they are not coming to comfort her.
I get out my whistle, tucked between the mattress and the wall, and blow my short angry contribution. The blinking light through the sunshield confirms that my signal is received in the girls’ room. I put the whistle back and pretend to be asleep while my father’s steps rush there. After a few silent minutes my father returns. He pauses in the doorway before he comes near my bed. My eyes are shut and my breathing is slow, but my heart beat is wild. Dad leans over me, straightens my pillow. His right hand presses hard on my left shoulder. I grit my teeth to stand the pain while my dad leans closer and whispers in my ear: “I know that you took part in it.” He leaves the room and closes the door. A minute later I hear the entrance door slammed.
A few minutes later all the lights are on and the hustle is everywhere. Pillows are flying, faces peep from the sun-shield and the yelling and ball thumps from the corridor declare that a “Stanga” game is on. Tonight, I don’t feel like joining the celebration. I ignore the noisy buzz around me, silently lying in bed and staring at the ceiling.
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief and pain,
For promis’d joy.
—Robert Burns, “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough”
Ka Pau was humming with gamblers. Coins clinking into machines echoed throughout the casino punctuated by winnings jangling in metal trays.
“Hey, Andre!” Honesto bounced his friend on the arm and leaned over his shoulder to peer at the images crossing the screen. “How yuh goin’?”
Andre looked up from his twenty-five-cent game and grinned. “Not bad. What’s happenin’?”
“Nothing much,” Honesto yawned. “Yuh winning?”
Like clockwork, Honesto showed up at the casino each Friday night looking for his friend. He and Andre had met a few months earlier when he had arrived in Trinidad from the Philippines. Twenty-nine-year-old Honesto been recruited to work in Trinidad as a pharmacist. Andre drove a taxi and was looking for a return fare from Piarco Airport when Honesto had emerged from Customs. Since then, they had become friends, with Andre providing taxi service for Honesto and his Filipino buddies.
“Win some, lose some,” Andre shrugged. “But,” he winked, reaching into the white plastic container for more coins, “mostly winning.” They laughed as Andre pulled the lever, the screen blurring and whirring before abruptly stopping. Immediately coins rattled into the tray.
“Way to go!” Honesto slapped Andre on the back.
“If this keep up,” Andre declared, “I go make my car payment this month. This machine hot. Before you came, I hit three lemons and made an easy hundred. This better than driving taxi.”
“I hear yuh, man. Sometimes it’s like that. Yuh get lucky and hit a good machine.”
The cocktail waitress appeared with Andre’s Carib. He reached into his pot and dropped some coins onto her tray. She turned to Honesto. “Yuh having the same as your brother?”
“Yeah, but he’s not my brother,” Honesto grinned. “He’s not good-looking enough.”
“You lucky to look even a little like me, boy.” Andre scooped more coins, inserted them into the machine, and pulled the lever. Two cherries appeared as coins clanked below. Again Andre fed the machine. When the spinning stopped, there was silence. He deposited more coins. The reels whirled and twirled then stopped. Nothing.
“Hey, you’re losing your touch.” Honesto edged closer. “Let me try.”
“Find your own machine,” Andre replied. “Yuh may be my friend, but there’s no way I’m sharing this cash cow with yuh!” He fed the machine again. The machine hummed like a blender, followed by clattering coins just as the waitress returned with Honesto’s beer.
Honesto reached into the winnings for her tip. “Timing is everything!”
“I need another pot,” Andre bragged. “Go get me another pot. This baby is set to pay.” While Honesto went to the cashier’s cage for the container, Andre dropped more coins into the slot. The reels raced, then stopped abruptly—three cherries on the pay line, more jangling in the tray.
“Thanks,” Andre said, taking the plastic container from Honesto and scooping up the coins. “Stay here and keep my place. Whatever you do, don’t give up my machine. I’ll be right back.” He drained his Carib.
“Hey, man, can I play with your money while you’re gone?”
“Use yuh own money,” Andre retorted, standing the empty bottle sentry-like behind the plastic pots.
“What the hell yuh mean yuh broke? Is payday!”
“You know I send my money home to the Philippines on Friday. Hey, you don’t want to chance letting her get cold while you’re gone, do you?”
“Okay,” Andre laughed. “Just don’t get too attached.” He turned to leave and then stopped. “But what if yuh win with my money?”
“It’s yours,” Honesto said.
“No, no, that’s not fair,” Andre protested. “If yuh pull the arm and win, the money’s part yours.”
“But it’s your money and your machine.”
“Hear what. If yuh win, we go split it, 50-50. How that sounding?”
“You sure?” Honesto asked.
“Yeah. Keep she warm!” Andre grinned. He turned and headed for the washroom, maneuvering among throngs clustered around the slots and tables, drinking beers while waiting for a machine.
“Good evening, good evening, Mr. Persad,” beamed the manager. “How is everything tonight?”
“Real good,” Andre grinned. “Just don’t go resetting my machine before I come back!” They both laughed.
When Andre returned from the washroom, an annoying bell was clamoring like a car alarm. Then he realized that the flashing amber light was above his machine.
“Yes, yes! Honesto! We win!” he shouted, craning to see the face of the machine through the crowd that surrounded Honesto. He caught a glimpse of the manager conferring with Honesto. The manager straightened and worked his way through the crowd past Andre. “How much is the jackpot?” Andre asked.
“Twelve thousand dollars.”
“All right, man!” Andre yelled. He shouldered his way to the machine. Three magenta sevens crossed the pay line. “Hey, Honesto!”
Honesto stopped scooping coins into the plastic container. He jumped up and hugged Andre. “Jackpot!” he beamed, pointing to the screen.
“I knew this machine was going to pay big!” Andre crowed. “Twelve thousand dollars! I calling Mary.”
While Andre was on his mobile with his wife, the manager returned and handed Honesto a check. He shook Honesto’s hand then left. Andre pressed off and shoved his cell in his pocket. He rubbed his hands in anticipation.
“Lemme see that beautiful piece of paper.” Honesto handed him the check. “Hey,” Andre stared. “This check is only in your name.”
Honesto shrugged. “The manager said they only put one name on it.”
“So let we change it now and split it,” Andre said.
“They don’t pay out that kind of cash,” Honesto explained. “That’s why he gave me the check. Monday on my lunch hour I’ll go to my bank and cash it. I’ll give you your half when you pick me up after work.”
“Okay,” Andre answered. “But I really wanted to go home and throw money all over Mary.” They laughed and finished gathering up the coins. On their way to the cashier’s cage, they passed their cocktail waitress. Andre tilted one of the brimming containers above her tray. “Is good luck to share the wealth,” he grinned.
The cashier handed Andre over three hundred dollars for the coins. “We hafta celebrate, Honesto. Where yuh want to go?”
Honesto paused. “Now that’s a tough one—seeing as we can go anywhere we want!”
On Monday, after collecting his boys from school, Andre headed for the San Juan SuperPharm to pick up Honesto. He hated traveling in Port-of-Spain at eight in the morning and three in the afternoon because that was when parents were delivering or retrieving their school-age children. Parents refused to risk possible kidnapping by letting their children travel. Soon the rainy season, with its intermittent downpours, would increase the congestion.
When he finally reached the pharmacy, it was after four. Honesto was not outside. He never waited in the tropical sun if Andre was late.
Andre turned to Brandon and Adam. “Allyuh wait here.
Don’t touch nothing. I’m coming back just now. After I drop off Honesto,” he added, “I go carry allyuh to MovieTowne in the arcade and we go celebrate.” He disappeared inside the pharmacy.
Soon he and Honesto emerged.
“Hi, guys.” Honesto nodded to the boys as he got into the front seat. They smiled back.
Andre slid behind the wheel and turned expectantly to Honesto. “So where my money, boy?” he asked with a smile.
Honesto looked down. “Sorry, Andre.” Andre stared. “What yuh mean, ‘Sorry’?”
“We were really busy today, Monday and all. I didn’t have time to go to the bank.” Honesto looked up. “But I will tomorrow. I promise.”
Andre was silent. He felt a sick churning in his stomach. “I hope yuh not lying to me.”
“Of course not,” Honesto said quickly.
Maybe too quickly, Andre thought. “Because I really counting on that money,” he continued slowly. “Where Mary working, they closing down by the end of the month, and I have to keep up the installment on this car.” He paused. “And yuh know long time we putting off Brandon operation.”
“Don’t worry. I was just busy,” Honesto assured him. “I’ll cash it tomorrow.” They rode in silence for a while, and then exchanged small talk until they reached Honesto’s apartment.
“So I go pick yuh up after work again tomorrow?” Andre asked.
Honesto handed him the fare. “Yeah. Four o’clock at the pharmacy.”
But the next day Honesto was not there. The clerk told Andre it was Honesto’s day off.
“He tell me to pick him up here this afternoon,” Andre insisted.
“One of you must have made a mistake,” the clerk shrugged.
Andre left. He sat in his car dumbfounded. Then he pulled out his cell and dialed Honesto’s number. The phone rang and rang. No one answered, not even voice mail.
“Yuh sonofabitch,” Andre said softly. His jaw set as he started up the car and headed for Honesto’s. How he could stiff me like that? For months I chauffeur him and his friends wherever they want to go, give him priority over my other customers. I invite him to my house for Christmas, not just because he was alone and far from his own family, but because I like him. Mary and the boys and me, we even organize that birthday party for him and invite all the Filipinos. “That sonofabitch,” Andre repeated as he swung onto Jerningham Avenue.
A few cars were parked outside Honesto’s whitewashed, two-story apartment building. Andre pulled into visitor parking, got out, and strode to Honesto’s door. He pounded on the painted metal, then stepped aside so he could not be seen through the peephole. He waited. There was no sound from within. Further down, someone was blasting Machel Montano’s “One More Time.” Andre banged on Honesto’s door again. He in there, all right. He just too coward to face me. Angrily, Andre started back to his car. “He can’t hide from me,” he fumed. “He must go to work.”
“Andre!” Honesto stood, head bowed, in his doorway, a cowering child called to the principal’s office.
Andre turned. “Give me my money now,” he demanded. “I want my money, boy.”
“I don’t have it.”
“What the hell yuh mean you don’t have it?” Andre shouted.
Honesto glanced around the complex nervously. “Please keep your voice down.”
“I go keep my voice down when yuh give me my money.” “It’s gone,” Honesto said quietly. “I sent it home to my mother.”
“No,” Andre said. “Yuh send your money home for yuh mother, not mine. I want my money now.”
“It’s too late. I don’t have it. Besides,” Honesto added defensively, “it was my money. I won it, not you.”
“But we agreed to split it.” Andre’s voice rose again. “Yuh used my machine and my money!”
“But I won. The money was my winnings, and now it’s gone.” Honesto stepped back and reached to close the door.
“Yuh lying sonofabitch!” Andre shouted, lunging at the door. The lock clicked.
That night as they lay in bed, Andre told Mary what had happened. “But he tief yuh money. How he could do yuh that?” she wailed.
“He just do it,” Andre responded wearily.
“To me, all the money was yours,” Mary declared. “It was your machine, and Honesto play with your money.” She shook her head. ”I just don’t understand him. He’s a pharmacist and he working for more money than you, and he won’t even split it. And you was his friend.”
“All he care about is the money,” Andre sighed. “Money is the only reason he come to Trinidad.”
“I still can’t believe he could tief from us like that and get away with it.”
Andre shrugged. “Tell it to the judge, I guess.” “Why not?” Mary demanded. “Why not what?”
“Why not tell it to the judge? Sue Honesto for the money!” “I thinking about doing that,” Andre said glumly, “but there isn’t enough money involved for that. After time off from work and legal expenses, it might cost me six thousand to get my six thousand.”
“Six? Go for the whole twelve! Honesto obviously don’t believe you have an agreement to split it.”
“That is true,” Andre agreed. “But it still risky to sue. There’s no guarantee, and if we lose, we go be in more expense.”
“There must be something we could do,” Mary sighed, turning off the bedside lamp. “Even with all the crime in Trinidad, being victims like this is the last thing I would have thought.”
Andre lay awake, his stomach churning. He tief my money. It was my machine and my money he sent home like clockwork to his mother. And I trusted him, that sonofabitch. My money, and now it’s gone—he stopped. That’s it! Why didn’t I think of that before? Excited, he began to make a plan. Yes, it just might work. Life may not be fair, he thought grimly, but that don’t mean I can’t try to right the wrongs.
The next morning, after dropping Brandon and Adam at school, Andre drove directly to Honesto’s complex. This time he parked outside on Jerningham Avenue. As he opened the car door, a pair of screeching keskidees flew from an overhead wire to a neighboring branch plumb-lined with ruddy mangos. He hastened to the nearest door on the first floor of the complex and glanced at the lock. Kwikset. Then he hurried back to his car and drove to the Priority Mall in San Juan.
In the locksmith shop, a middle-aged woman was seated behind the counter talking on her mobile. “Yuh think I pluck myself and get money? Yuh understand?” she was saying. She nodded at Andre and added, “Customer come. Call yuh later.”
“Where Moony?” Andre demanded.
The woman slowly looked up from putting her mobile in her purse, rolled her eyes, and steupsed loudly. “What? Yuh don’t even say hello? Where yuh manners gone, boy?”
“Sorry,” Andre said sheepishly. “Good morning.”
“That’s more like it. I don’t know what this country coming to,” she continued, shaking her head. “First people don’t have no time to talk with people, now they don’t even say good morning! What you in such a rush for, boy?”
Great, Andre thought. A talker. “No rush. I just thinking ’bout all I have to do today, is all.”
She shook her head. “Yuh going to have a heart attack, yuh keep up like that. This is Trinidad, boy. Nothing can’t wait.” To Andre’s relief she turned and called out, “Moony!” A stocky East Indian appeared from the back room. “Lightning Man!” Leo Moonsammy beamed, giving Andre a bear hug. He and Andre had played football together at San Juan Secondary Comprehensive and remained friends through the years.
After exchanging small talk, Andre said, “Listen, Moony, I need a bump key.”
“What for? Yuh turning to a life of crime?” Moony joked. “Anything gotta be more profitable than driving taxi,” Andre laughed. “Adam lock a door in the house I need to open.”
“What kind you need?”
“Kwikset. So you find is a lot of breakins using bump keys?” “That’s usually what they’re for. There’s a lot of all kinds of crime in this country. If the PNM don’t hurry up and do something about all the homicides, our people going get elected.”
Andre pocketed the key and was soon heading back to Honesto’s apartment. Honesto will be at work all day like the rest of the Filipinos here. No one will hear me banging on Honesto’s lock. By now rush hour traffic had dissipated. Andre tuned in to 91.9 and leaned back to soak up the soca and enjoy the ride. “Tonight I’m in the mood, I want to wine and behave rude / So anyting you want to do, I dare you, I dare you …“
When he reached Honesto’s building, Andre again parked on Jerningham Avenue. No one was in sight. He opened the trunk, pulled the rubber mallet from his sports bag, and hurried to Honesto’s door. Except for the usual symphony of chirping, squawking, and whistling, everything was as still as a Sunday sunrise. Andre inserted the bump key into the lock and banged the key with the mallet. Nothing. He banged again. No luck. He listened to hear if the noise had disturbed anyone. Satisfied that it had not, he pounded again, slightly turning the key at the same time. The lock opened. Andre reached for the knob, then hesitated. This is breaking and entering, he thought. No! Taking back my own money ent no crime. Quickly he slipped inside.
He stood in the tidy kitchen and looked around. “Now where would I put that check?” he wondered aloud. He noticed that everything was orderly. Even the breakfast dishes stood drying in the rack. Impulsively, he opened the cupboards beneath the sink. Each item was lined neatly across the space, three deep. “Backups for his backups,” Andre mused. “Like a buller man.” No, the check wouldn’t be in the kitchen or the bathroom. He walked into the dining room–living room which was as spotless as the kitchen. A light hung above the dining room table with its four chairs. Beyond a black leather recliner and matching sofa faced the wall with the flat-screen TV. On the right was the door to the bedroom.
The bed was made. Remote controls for the portable TV and overhead fan lay on the bedside table, along with a copy of Aelred’s Sin and some journals, Pharmacy Times and dotPharmacy. Andre pulled open the drawer—miscellaneous papers neatly stacked, pens, paperclips, coins, cash. Eight hundred dollars. I ent no tief. He closed the drawer and opened the double doors of the armoire. Shirts hung on the left neatly grouped according to color. On the shelf below was a row of neatly folded underwear, and behind a row of neatly folded socks. On the right was a fold-down desktop. Behind the desktop were pigeonholes filled with envelopes, bills, receipts, and—jackpot!—a Ka Pau check for twelve thousand dollars. Just like I thought, Andre gloated. The check not cash yet. He do everything like clockwork: He always on time, he always stop by the casino every Friday exactly at 7:30, and he always go in the bank and send money home on Friday afternoons.
Andre rifled through the envelopes until he found one that said Republic Bank. Months earlier, he had driven Honesto to the San Juan branch to open the account. He continued rummaging until he found Honesto’s passport. He pulled a chair over to the desk and taking a pen and blank sheet, he began copying Honesto’s signature. The big loop on the H, the pointed n, the squat t with the downward cross. Printed capital M. Over and over he practiced the signature. Satisfied, he copied Honesto’s account number on the sheet, then replaced the Republic envelope in its pigeonhole. He pocketed the check and passport, closed the armoire, and exited the apartment, leaving the door unlocked. I go return soon. It not worth having to bump the lock again.
He drove back to San Juan, to the Republic branch on Eastern Main Road. The Ka Pau check drawn on a Republic account, he figured, so Republic can check funds and cash the check immediately. He knew he was taking a chance going to the branch where Honesto banked, but he thought they would be less likely to question his cashing the check there. He parked on First Street just beyond the bank. “Showtime,” he sighed, removing his aviator sunglasses from his shirt pocket and reaching into the backseat for his Boston Red Sox cap.
As he entered the bank, he noted the uniformed security guard standing by the back wall, and in his peripheral vision, the surveillance cameras. He averted his face as best he could and stood at the end of the short line. Just like I thought. Not many people here at this hour on a Wednesday morning. Suddenly, the security guard was walking toward him. Andre froze. The guard passed and opened the door for an elderly lady. Gotta relax, he told himself, exhaling slowly. It gonna work. Me and Honesto about the same height and coloring. I just a little taller and more built. He smiled to himself. And better-looking.
The woman ahead moved away from the counter. Andre stepped forward. Don’t say nothing yuh don’t have to. He handed the teller the check. “Cash, please.”
The teller looked at the piece of paper. “Do you have an account with us?” she asked. Andre pulled the sheet from his pocket before realizing it was covered with his attempts to forge Honesto’s signature. Quickly he lowered the sheet below the counter and folded it so only the account number showed. Then he placed it on the counter facing the teller. She typed the numbers onto her keyboard. While they waited, he slipped the paper back into his pocket. “I’m sorry, Mr. Manalo, but you don’t have enough money in your account to cover this check. I can deposit the money into your account and you can withdraw the cash after the check has cleared.”
“But why I need to wait?” Andre blurted. Easy, easy, he told himself. “It’s a Ka Pau check written on a Republic account,” he continued evenly. “Why can’t I cash it now since Ka Pau has an account and I have an account?”
“One moment. I’ll ask my supervisor.”
Andre forced himself to appear calm as he watched her walk to the back of the room and disappear. Cool yuhself. The worst that can happen is they won’t cash the check. No, he corrected himself, the worst would be if the manager comes over and sees I’m not Honesto. Andre turned slightly. The security guard had returned to his place and stood idly glancing about. Just then the teller emerged with an older man dressed in a suit. She was showing him the check and talking. The man examined the check, looked across at Andre, and nodded.
The teller returned and slid the check toward Andre. “No problem, Mr. Manalo. Just endorse the back, please, and I’ll need to see some identification.” Andre handed her Honesto’s passport. He picked up the pen attached to the silver chain and stared at the blank back of the check. The teller was waiting. Andre carefully drew the large loop on the H. Pointed n. Short t, down-slanted cross. Hook the final o‘s backwards. The teller took the check and compared the signature with the one in the passport. Andre tensed, ready to bolt. Then she recorded the passport number on the check, stamped the back, and asked how he’d like his cash.
Gleefully, Andre jumped into his Nissan Wingroad. He looked around quickly. No one was watching. He removed the fat stack of blues from the envelope and fanned the bills. One hundred twenty of them. And all his. No way any of this belong to Honesto. He forfeit he right to half the winnings when he try to cheat me. He tossed the Red Sox cap onto the backseat and started the engine. All he had to do now was drive back to Honesto’s, replace the passport, and lock the door.
Is still early, he thought, as he descended Lady Young Road, passed the Hilton, and approached the St. Ann’s rotary. Honesto won’t be back for hours. I have plenty time to drive to Ellerslie Plaza and deposit the money in my Scotiabank account. Better than carrying all this cash around. Is Trinidad. Anything could happen.
Half an hour later, his deposit made, Andre was again circling the Savannah, passing the Emperor Valley Zoo and the Botanical Gardens as he headed toward Belmont. The pink pouis were in bloom, their delicate, fleeting brilliance paralleling his excitement at everything the jackpot made possible. It ent often that justice happen, that nice guys finish first, he reflected. He swung left onto Jerningham Avenue and pulled up just before the entrance to the apartment building. He got out and scanned the surroundings. Deserted. Nice. Suddenly a ripe mango dropped before him. A good omen. Smiling, he stooped to retrieve it.
Andre knocked quietly on Honesto’s door. He waited. Nothing. After double-checking to make sure he was unobserved, he slipped inside. He took the passport from his shirt pocket, marveling at how easy it had been to get his money back. If I wasn’t such a basically honest guy, I might even be tempted— He stopped in the bedroom doorway.
“What the…?” Papers and clothing were scattered everywhere. All the drawers were out, socks and underwear hanging from them. The armoire and its fold-down desk were open, the contents of the pigeonholes strewn about. Then he saw the arm.
“Oh god!” He dropped the passport and walked around the bed to where Honesto lay on the floor. His head rested in a pool of blood—geyser blood from slashed carotids. His throat looked like it had been machete-chopped. Mechanically, Andre felt for the pulse he knew wasn’t there. “Who do this?” he wailed. Call the ambulance. No, the police. He pressed 999 on his cell. Oh god. Who could do this? Motive. Someone who heard ’bout the jackpot must have brought Honesto back to the apartment to steal the money—
Andre froze. Motive. I have motive.
“Hello? Hello?” And my fingerprints all over the apartment. Quickly he hung up and looked around wildly. From the floor he grabbed a shirt and began wiping the armoire pulls and the desk. The pen. The envelope from Republic Bank. The passport—what I do with the passport? Frantically, he searched for the green passport. There it was on the floor. He wiped it furiously and shoved it into a pigeonhole—then stopped. Everyone know, he realized slowly, how Honesto cheat me. I just deposit twelve thousand dollars in my account. And I on the security cameras at the bank—at both banks, dressed in the same clothes… He leaned against the armoire and slid to the floor, laughing uncontrollably.
*This story is taken from: Trinidad Noir Ed. By Lisa Allan-Agostini and Jeanne Mason, ©2008 Akashic Books.
A moral romance
The restaurant, which offered simple but excellent fare, was lit by a large artificial moon augmented by some weak recessed lighting in the walls. The owner oversaw proceedings from the till. At one table, oblivious to the comings and goings of the waiters and the other customers, a man and a woman were trying to downplay their excitement at the conversation they were having by occasionally looking out of the window. Down below, the river was dancing, the lights from the homes that lined the shore glinting playfully off the water.
They’d finished their meal and were drinking aropi liquor in little sips. Flugo, a well-built redhead, wore his ugliness well. Otami was tall and stunning: perfectly proportioned blue eyes, short hair the colour of dates, a ravishing nose, beautifully angled upper incisors and a lower lip that wobbled slightly, like a tic, a subconscious effort to right a slight unevenness. A moment before she’d missed the rim of her glass, and some of the liquid had splashed onto her chin. She wiped it away then lowered her eyes and took off her jacket. Flugo tried hard to keep his saliva in check. She stretched out her arms to show off the special features underneath her bracelets. Flugo’s hairy arms only had functional enhancements. He showed them to her. Both were fidgety and irritable, as though something with no discernible odour were cooking between the two of them. The bill was brought to the table, and Otami declared that as she’d invited him out she’d pay. Suddenly they heard an inhuman roar. Flugo’s hair grew redder, and Otami’s back glowed.
A flame emerged from the entrance to the kitchen, right next to the counter where the owner stood at his post. It was already racing up the hiluven screen. With the rapidly spreading flames snapping at their heels, the chef and his assistants ran out as fast as they could while the robotios backed away, ineffectually spitting out their water reserves. New tongues of flame slithered along the floor like fiery snakes. While the owner stepped back, slapping at his cuffs, his customers ran for the exit. Seeing that Flugo was about to use his wrist extinguisher, the man asked him not to come any closer. Flugo looked down at the remains of their meal and the clipboard with the bill. He took out his money pouch and fingered the notes while the bar went up in flames. Otami made a grab for him and tried to pull him away, but her sweaty hands slipped and she went on alone. The owner hesitated like the captain of a ship before heading out the back. Caught between the fire and the night, Otami turned around and called to Flugo until, eventually, he agreed to come out with her. On the esplanade, about fifty metres away, they watched as the fire consumed most of the restaurant and the windows began to crack. Eventually the firefly units arrived. Calmed by this reassuring sight the crowd dispersed, and they were left alone under the stars. Flugo was torn between melancholy and Otami’s gleaming shoulders. They’ve all gone, she said. And none of them paid, Flugo replied. Still clutching the money, he made as if to go back inside. She pressed herself against him. It’s cold, she said. Aroused by her whisper, he realized that now was the time to put an arm around her. They went down to the seafront to look for a taxi before driving to a tall residential icosahedron. In her studio, which, like her, was beautiful and uneven, they rutted like fugitives from the law. All the positions, all the orifices, all the juices. While Otami made an effort to be industrious, Flugo strove to be liberated. He was disoriented, as though he hadn’t yet come to terms with the new horizons opened up by their unexpected escape. He looked down at his uncommonly firm trombon as she begged him to plunge it into her and wondered what to make of the two fingers she’d shoved in his arse. She clung to him tight, making a strange sound, a kind of purr begging for succour or a timid mantra to ward off oblivion. They slept well but not blissfully. In the morning she stroked him but didn’t cling to him like she had the night before; she was distracted. He, however, was trying to concentrate. In this minor difference, Flugo found the room to mill his incredulity into anxiety.
It was a tragedy, he said. What happened to that man was a tragedy, and people… like us… such a good meal… We need to pay for it.
She reminded him that all the covers put together wouldn’t come to anything like what he’d be getting from his insurance. Also, it had been her treat. He said that it wasn’t about the money so much as paying what one should, acting responsibly. Basic human decency. The resulting silence suggested that for him this was no trivial matter. Flugo stifled a yawn. He’d never thought about how important such things were before. He didn’t say that neither had he ever slept with a woman like her before, but it was obvious that he was somewhat flustered by their exertions. She stretched, rubbing against him. The fact that she was able to do two things at once piqued Flugo’s trombon, and they went at it again. By the time they’d finished he was braying while she was pleading, as though she had begun to founder. But then she recovered immediately: she was ephemeral as a dolphin. She kissed him, slapped his arse and sat down on an elegant-but-dirty sofa with a quarnaklo draped over her legs. The night before she’d told him that she didn’t deal very well with confrontation and that she designed persuasive images for neural links. She plugged in to the Panconscious. Flugo was left staring at the only painting in the house, a landscape of very different places: a reed bed, a lake on a high mountain, a hall in a cheap hotel and more. Then he left for work. He was a quality-control officer at a factory that made fluid injectors.
Several days passed before he went back to the restaurant. A pair of cyborgs was guarding some furniture that hadn’t been burned too badly, and a pile of brickling, woodpaste and metal had been placed alongside the two surviving walls. He noticed a fluttering tablecloth; it wasn’t the table that he had sat at with Otami, but the clipboard with the unpaid bill was still there. Flugo blinked, and the board disappeared. However, the boy piling up the objects that were still serviceable was certainly real. Flugo told him that he’d come to pay the bill for that night. The boy told him not to worry, Don Mayome had other things on his mind. Flugo left reluctantly without asking any more questions.
He couldn’t forgive himself for the delay. And yet he could, because to his surprise Otami called him, and they went out together not once but twice, and on both occasions they screwed like lost souls, once on an empty boat. Three fucks usually constitute a relationship, but this time that wasn’t entirely the case. They were tied together but not bonded. They grabbed, bit and stroked each other violently, mixing their breath, saliva, semen and juices, their eyes brimming over. They squeezed at each other greedily, until it hurt, but it was all for naught; neither could actually steal anything from the other’s body, they couldn’t physically merge, which is what they really wanted. When it seemed that they’d squeezed out all the pleasure they could and were finally sated, it only took a moment of contact to, unlike the fire at the restaurant, revive their flames and fury again. Otami was as crazy about Flugo’s trombon and mouth as she was for her own holes and emissions, as he was for every part of her, even her toenails. She revered Flugo’s bulk. She nuzzled her forehead into his chest and stroked his head, mumbling, You give me everything, moaning that if he let her go she’d fly away or drown, and so he would thrust, push, suck and try to reassure her, even though she never seemed to need consolation after the climax. Sex isn’t the only bond; it was more like when they were copulating a bond appeared that couldn’t seem to raise its head otherwise.
Flugo stammered that one must own up to the consequences of their actions. She gave a half-smile and massaged his shins without bothering to say that all they did was go to dinner, but it was probably what she was thinking.
But who will atone for the thoughtlessness, the selfishness of the people who left? he asked.
She glanced at him without irony, pity or the slightest irritation, without even reminding him, once again, that she was the one who was supposed to have paid the bill.
When Flugo went back up the hill the next day, the boy told him that Don Mayome had died. He was his stepson. Flugo bit his lip.
Of course, after a calamity like that, he murmured.
No, sir, he died of something he already had.
What about you…?
I helped him to die, and he left me this. I don’t know if I’ll be able to sell it.
Flugo said that he didn’t think it would be hard. The stepson said that he didn’t understand; it wasn’t that he didn’t know if he could sell it, he simply couldn’t sell it.
Of course, Flugo said, there are unpaid debts.
Telling the boy again that he hadn’t been able to pay that night, he took out his pouch.
The stepson stopped him there: Don’t insult me.
No, no, it’s what I owe.
Sir, you don’t get this business at all.
Flugo considered arguing further but just nodded. He walked down the hill, clutching his side, as though he had a stitch, as though he were trying to climb up a cliff but couldn’t make any headway. One morning, after a sleepy but indulgent encounter, he asked Otami why they never did it at his house. It took her a while to answer: I feel better here. He looked at the only painting on the wall. Today it seemed as though the images had changed: palfreys galloping across the tundra, a morgue, a village in the mist, but it might have been an optical illusion. As usual, for breakfast they had tea, bread and oil and bunaston strips. They ate, and Flugo stopped himself from asking how she knew she felt better there if she’d never been to his house. Otami sat in her work chair looking so languorous, glossy and long legged that it was almost intimidating. Suddenly, he got up and exultantly slapped himself on the forehead. The noise distracted Otami from the Panconscious. She told him to take care, he was liable hurt himself; one needs to know how to handle an excess of endorphins.
At the former restaurant the owner’s stepson had cleared away the rubble. He was saying goodbye to a professional-looking lady, who then got into her autopod and drove away. When he saw Flugo, he sighed, not quite exasperated but certainly weary. He asked Flugo to try to understand that he had things to rebuild. Flugo smiled with a cunning expression he hadn’t seemed capable of. He looked at the three cyborgs struggling with a shipment of various different materials. He told the boy that he was very good at organizing construction teams, partly because he worked alongside them, too. He seemed so enthused that the stepson reluctantly agreed to let him help out. And so, help he did.
Three afternoons a week Flugo parked his patacycle at the dock and went up the hill to work with Mayome’s stepson. He checked budgets, talked to suppliers, negotiated with paralaws, set the ratio for the adobaster mix, struggled in vain to hurry the insurers up and made improvements to plans for a facility that would have to wait. He lifted loads of brickling and helped the boy to manage the money that the prescient Mayome had set aside – two years’ rent – before the boy helped him to die. Flugo asked him what that help had consisted of.
It was just something I used to do, the boy said.
On the mornings following his afternoon at the construction site, Flugo had coffeto and biscuits with cream and jam for breakfast. The other afternoons he patalated home before heading out for consummation with Otami, sometimes after a quiet walk, a quick dinner and a prologue of dirtilthian words. Even with what little we know about Flugo, we can tell that he found this routine unsettling.
Late one night, looking at the painting of different landscapes, he said quietly: I have to do some research.
What, hunny? she asked.
What kind of a job is helping people to die?
Otami was asleep, but he didn’t notice. His monologue went on to reveal that trying to make up for the debts of so many people was wearing him down, except when he was cavorting with Otami. But he wondered whether what was wearing him down was his obsession with whether or not everyone should have paid, or whether his malaise was caused by exhaustion and he’d invented an excuse to avoid the bigger issue. One might say that the work he put in avoiding the issue was beginning to bore him, and it was the fact that he was bored that saddened him. He woke up with Otami licking his ear, and from the oblivion of sleep slipped into the oblivion she had to offer. Like an island rent asunder by an earthquake, Flugo was torn between sadness and satisfaction. Looking away, she put on a T-shirt and gave him a compliment: Hunny, I have so much fun with you. I’ve never had so much fun with anyone. Flugo blinked, his eyes shone.
I had so hoped it would be like this.
She got up and spent almost half a minute hesitating between going to the bathroom and the kitchen, as though she didn’t know what to do first or wasn’t completely in control of herself. Eventually, she decided to sit on the sofa, and the decision pleased her. He lingered in the soft embrace of the duvet. A couple of minutes later he heard Otami’s voice from the kitchen, like a neural advertisement whose soundtrack was the bubbling of the coffeto pot. You shouldn’t tire yourself out like that. What if you end up wearing us out, too?
Like a paradoxical pill, Flugo found the phrase reinvigorating. Three afternoons a week, once he’d finished work at the plant, he committed himself to paying off society’s debt to the restaurant. The remaining nights he recharged his batteries with Otami’s eagerness. Sweaty and chaotic, she squeezed, twisted and pushed him, telling him in a hoarse, cracked voice never to let her go, to seal the deal, to be there with her, but after the climax she was always the first to extricate herself. Outside of the bedroom she never asked him for anything. Neither did she seem to expect any answers. Caught between the dock and the buoy, it seemed that poor confused Flugo was only able to anchor himself when he was putting his back into the work for the stepson. It was his way of overcoming his doubt and bewilderment. This would appear to be a therapeutic story about the different lives a man can lead.
But Flugo never congratulated himself for having discovered such a satisfactory balance between duty and pleasure. One afternoon, when it was time to go home, Mayome’s stepson was cleaning a sink they’d just put in. He said to Flugo: Flugo, you work like a convict.
Flugo wasn’t surprised by the comment. In fact, he replied, I see myself as a researcher.
What are you researching?
We-ell, I’d like to find out how to take ownership of myself.
The boy turned off the tap and dried his hands.
Why? he asked eventually.
Flugo’s face flickered into a smile before returning to its usual earnest state. I don’t know; so I can have a relationship.
The boy also began to look earnest. What kind of relationship?
A relationship like the kind where your breath is interchangeable, said Flugo. The words took him by surprise. The boy, too.
Like a romance? he asked in a quiet voice.
Maybe, said Flugo. One hand washes the other and both wash the face.
That night he was watching the screenatron, trying to consolidate his feelings into a single emotion, when the psyphone rang. It was Otami. With no help from him, her face appeared, looking surprisingly easy to read. Her smoky voice conveyed nothing more than the words themselves: Tomorrow night. Can I come to your house tomorrow night?
Of course, said Flugo.
Grandz, she said. Then we’re doing something new.
Flugo hung up and quickly gave his flat a once-over, but there wasn’t much to do. Everything was neat and tidy. It was a nice flat. The last we heard of Flugo he was in the supermarket buying bunaston strips.
There are those who invent lies, and there are those who believe them.
In an ideal world Jerry would spread his wings and fly away from there. For as long as he can remember himself, he has felt them. Felt that they were sewed to his spinal column beneath his skin, and that one day they would be released. Sure they would. For sure. For as long as he can remember himself, he has also felt the notebook of lined paper pressed inside his left pocket, rolled up and tied tightly with twine. He sometimes dreams about the characters that amble between the lines, imprisoned in the darkness of his pocket. He fears they will get lost. And then there are the characters who still want to get inside, who will lose their way…
But now, as he stands in the older man’s bedroom, he feels as if skin is not the only thing confining his wings, but that they are also fastened by a cord that is contorting his entire body, as if he were one of the characters rolled up between the lines of his notebook.
Jerry’s gaze lingers on his reflection in the long mirror hanging on the inside of the wardrobe door. “I’ve looked at myself in the mirror for a long time today. It’s been a few days since I’ve looked at myself in the mirror, maybe two weeks…” he says, wondering if the older man discerns the contortedness of his body.
The older man snuffles. He stands leaning on the doorpost of the bedroom door, following Jerry’s movements. “You can come over whenever you want to…I don’t keep the apartment locked.”
“I don’t know,” Jerry shrugs his shoulders. “It’ll stress me out.” He looks into the eyes of the skinny adolescent like a grayish line staring back at him from the mirror, thinking: I need to slip inside, and the closet door will close on both of us.
“Yes. Everyone runs into everyone else here…I’ll try to move into the far apartment,” the man thinks aloud. “I brought you a gift,” he moves closer to Jerry, producing from his pocket a small box wrapped in lined notebook paper and tied with twine.
“Yes.” Jerry takes the gift.
“Yes, what? Don’t you want to open it?”
“It stresses me out…”
“What stresses you out?”
“That everyone runs into everyone else. That they’ll run into me when I come over to your place.” Jerry passes the gift from one hand to the other, his fingers working the paper as if searching for his own character between the lines.
“No one really cares…It only seems that way to you. Besides…you’re allowed to come see me, aren’t you? It’s about work. That’s what you’ll tell whoever asks.”
“Yes.” Jerry looks out the window. A man and a woman pass by. Brief laughter rolls into the room. “…I told you so.”
Five seconds pass like the heavy beats of a bass drum. Neither one of them move. “Wings, wings, open!” Jerry whispers.
The man moves really close to him, really reaches over to him, his hand really, almost absentmindedly, unbuttoning Jerry’s pants.
As if he were busy, Jerry tries to untie the knot in the twine.
“Tear off the paper already…” the man says, in a slightly annoyed tone.
His palm is warm. Boiling. Burning.
Jerry closes his eyes. How much time is passing? What disaster is underway in the world? What’s gone awry in the order of nature to start the fire?
“It’s not getting hard,” the man says.
Jerry shrugs his shoulders.
“Don’t be afraid.”
“I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid of you.”
The door of the wardrobe moves and the entire picture of the room shakes as if in an earthquake. Only the man’s hand remains steady. It grasps Jerry’s dick so hard it hurts. Be careful, Jerry almost whispers, I have wings. They’re about to open up, and then I’ll fly away, Jerry almost says. But the man is not careful. Or maybe that’s just the way it is at the beginning – brutality, no concessions.
“You look wonderful.” The older man searches for Jerry’s eyes. For a moment he traps them, as if insisting on exposing the fraud. Jerry looks down, his eyes stopping on the bulge in the man’s pants. He has a big one.
What am I doing? What does he want me to do? What do I need to do?
“What exactly do you want?”
Sixty centimeters stand between the edge of the bed and the wardrobe door. They are four. Jerry watches them, imagining them struggling with one another, for life and death: their arms are wrapped forcefully around their bodies, there are no concessions. They fall. They rise. They push. They are drawn.
An earthquake begins, the mirror cracks, and one Jerry falls into the mirror. Now they are only three.
You three…you are the only ones who love me, a thought fleets through Jerry’s mind.
The large freckled ass glares in the mirror. It flashes at him. Dash dot, dash dash, dot…Jerry is excellent at Morse code. He follows the flashes, trying to decipher the message, as if it is already within him. The imprisoned message is somewhat frightening, confusing. The man’s ass is the opposite of that of a king, with small sores and all that.
Jerry is following a different message: “Come here, quick. Here, close. Hold it. Like that. Your mouth. Just like that. Do it right. Don’t rush it…” The man’s body blocks the flashes in the mirror, and to Jerry it seems to have gone dark. Suddenly. Darkness. His eyes are wide open but the world is in darkness and he is choking a little. I am trapped in the ruins of an earthquake. He tries to take a breath and feels his eyes popping out of their sockets.
“Take it slow. I love that. Love it. You do it great. No, no, no! Don’t look, not now, not now. What are you doing?”
Jerry inhales, fixes his gaze on the mirror, trying to receive more flashes. The older man reaches behind his back and slams the door of the wardrobe. “Later. Later. Don’t stop. All the way. Like that. Yeah, like that. Afterward I’ll do you, and you’ll watch yourself. And us, the four of us.”
With every breath of air, with every passing minute, Jerry tries to clarify the truth within him. But the truth contracts, or is hidden within the mirror, and Jerry asks the door to open. He counts: One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight…Hot. It’s too hot in his mouth. On his forehead. Sweat drips from his face.
“You drive me crazy. Your tongue. I’m alive. Keep it slow.”
With an abrupt motion, Jerry reaches up and manages to open the wardrobe door.
“No, no, no! Don’t look, not now. What are you doing?”
“Looking at the three of you,” Jerry says, and takes a breath.
He has been buried beneath the ruins of an earthquake before, and then he felt a kind of keep on moving, keep on moving, keep on moving. He has the same feeling now, flowing like some sort of program for his hands and his feet, and perhaps sometime: he grabs hold of the man, pushes him back, and knocks him onto the bed. He takes out a box of matches, lights one, and moves it toward its greenish cover. And once the flame catches, he extends his index finger and places it over his lips, as if to say: Hush!
“Say the magic word!” Jerry whispers. He raises his head and looks up at the man from below. His stomach is glistening. All the hairs on his forearms are glistening. What a commotion, that earthquake. The man is writhing, pressing Jerry’s head against his stomach, as if to say: ask my stomach, ask whatever you want!
Jerry feels that it takes mountains of strength to emerge from the ruins and begin walking. The earthquake occurred many years ago, he thinks. He walks along the path that runs behind the older man’s apartment. There’s a light on in the window. There never was an earthquake, he thinks. Life is just like that, broken. The man calls to him from the window: “Hey, you forgot your gift!”
Jerry stands erect out of physical recognition, like an animal that is sleeping or wounded. Out of the same instinct he opens the notebook. A mad wind blows, and the intensity of the madness causes characters to move in and out from between the lines. He feels as if he is being carried on their backs, like Nils Holgersen on the back of the wild goose. From this height, the fields look like hopscotch squares and the houses are tiny. He thinks about Nils who heard the language of the wild geese, which has only two words: one that is more or less the equivalent of what is known as sky, and another for all other things.
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.
Six olives contain as many calories as a small steak. Could that be right? She’d read it out of the corner of her eye in a magazine belonging to a woman in a faded ski sweater sitting next to her on the metro. It came from an article about common dietary myths featuring surprising graphics: a large cup of cocoa is as fattening as a mid-sized ice-cream, fifty grams of peanuts or half a litre of beer; six olives were the same as a small steak, etc. Could that be right? She’d never really understood how calories work; it had never been an issue for her. Maybe they were just making it up. According to her Chinese doctor, calories weren’t what mattered; they were part of it but mostly it depended on your body and the type of food in question.
She walked hurriedly down the platform of Chacarita station. Now that she was about to see Espina, she began to ask herself why she had insisted on meeting in person and whether it was a good idea. What would the doctor think about what she was doing? What was she doing? Nothing. She was meeting up with Javier Espina so he could give her a copy of his next film and then maybe they’d go for a coffee. Espina had written to her out of the blue to ask whether she could translate some subtitles for him. She hadn’t heard from him for months. He could just have emailed her the script or a link to the film, but something made her say that she’d love to, why didn’t they meet up? She’d hesitated over signing off with a kiss, a hug or just ‘best’. The latter seemed too formal and the former implied some form of inappropriate physical contact. She ended it with a simple ‘thanks’. Espina answered four days later. A curt note saying that he could make her a copy. She said great, if it’s not too much trouble, and again got stuck over the sign-off: she could ask him to leave it at somebody’s house or with the secretary at school. But that would be too cold and distant. Then again, suggesting they meet for a drink would be too much. In the end, she said they could meet up one afternoon in the week; she got out of school at three and passed by Chacarita station on her way home. He liked that idea, but when he asked when, her mental schedule cluttered up instantly. This week was difficult, but next week was fine. Ten days of silence, no word from Espina. She was the one to get back in touch, apologizing: she’d been so busy, this week would be difficult, too, but next week for sure. A few days later Espina sent her a blank email without a subject line or anything, and she answered it with the suggestion that they meet at four at Chacarita station, if that was OK with him. On the Tuesday Espina wrote to confirm and gave her his new number, just in case. That Thursday, at lunchtime, she sent him a message saying that something had come up, sorry, they’d have to do it another time. In fact, nothing had come up apart from an inexplicable argument with Adrian that morning and an overbearing anxiety as the hour of their encounter approached. By putting ‘time’ instead of ‘day’ she hoped to clear away a mist that had grown stifling. Espina was patient and understanding. Or maybe he just didn’t care; maybe this was all in her head. After several more back and forths, they ended up arranging to meet at the same place, at the same time, on the same day of the week. A Thursday; this Thursday. A month and a half, twenty emails and fourteen text messages later, here she was.
It had been silly to suggest they meet in person, she realized that now. But not that silly. The silly part was the thirty-four messages. She’d calculated on arriving a little late, ten or fifteen minutes… but now she’d left it too long, and when she didn’t see him standing under the main arch of the station she regretted her tardiness. What if he’d got impatient and left? She scanned the faces of the passers-by with the same manic, flickering intensity as she looked at the newspapers and magazines in the kiosk in the main hall. She couldn’t help scrutinizing typos, lapses in grammar or bodily flaws: a woman who was so short and fat that she looked wider than she was tall; a guy who was missing an arm and had the empty sleeve tied around his neck; another with a pock-marked face, as though he’d suffered from a virulent form of chicken pox or had been spattered with a pan of boiling oil when he was a boy. Although she kept repeating to herself that there was nothing wrong with what she was doing, there was nothing wrong with what she was doing, what she was doing had been a little wrong ever since she’d started to feel guilty about writing to Espina and insisting they meet. She was stepping back into a minefield she’d thought long since buried many metres below ground. In a nuclear bunker. And now she’d insulted him by arriving so late. Guilt began to bubble up from some hidden deposit in her body.
How far could one flee on a train from Chacarita station? General Lemos. Someone tapped her on the shoulder. She was sure it was him, the sudden rush of blood left her in no doubt. Espina’s expression looked like that of a man who wasn’t very happy to have been kept waiting. Instead of apologizing, she asked him how he was with a shamelessness that surprised her, because somehow it seemed aimed at sabotage, ensuring that their meeting would be over in the blink of an eye having collapsed under its own weight. Espina stepped back to a respectable distance. Fine, he replied, barely opening his mouth. It sounded warm and welcoming, he wasn’t upset. There was something about his half-open mouth and the gleam in his eyes, the disproportionately large nose that somehow suited him. There was definitely something about him. After he’d been so prominent in her thoughts for the past few weeks, and having gone so many months without seeing him, she had to readjust the image she had of him in her head to fit the one standing right in front of her. She imagined that he must be doing something similar and tried to fix her features into the position that she thought suited her best. They’d last seen each other in the summer and had ended up so close to one another that all she’d been able to see were his cheekbones, eyes and some of his hair as he kissed her so passionately that there was no way she could have resisted, not that she had wanted to.
Espina wrongfooted her by asking whether she had time to come with him, he had to go somewhere close by. A short walk. She said she did, she was free until seven. They crossed the avenue to the entrance to the municipal cemetery. Then, as always, every day of the week, people were coming and going, wandering around the city of the dead with its neighbourhoods for the rich and poor. The idea of going for a walk around there came as a relief. It was an innocent setting, a neutral balm upon a potentially explosive encounter. There was nothing wrong with going for a walk with a man she’d kissed six months ago, a man she thought about every now and then, a man she wanted to see again even if she was ready to stop him short if he tried something. She wasn’t going to sleep with him, just for a walk. Not even a drink. But if there was nothing wrong with it, why was she feeling this combination of excitement and guilt?
She asked if they were going to the cemetery. Espina said they were going to a cemetery but not the municipal one. A small British cemetery next door. He had to take a photo of a particular grave to send to another film director, a friend of his. It was a slightly irritating job he’d been putting off for weeks because Chacarita was out of his way. They passed by the flower stalls and large portico and went on along the deserted pavement that ran around the cemetery wall. Espina was wearing a checked shirt, a heavy coat and dark trousers that had seen better days. She had made sure to wear everyday clothes: the black trousers that were a little tight on her, the green jacket, the shoes that Adrian had brought her back from his last trip and her favourite coat that winter, a black waterproof one with a hood. These were definitely her ordinary work clothes, but maybe she’d put a little more thought into the combination. Or maybe it was just the unusual touch of eyeliner and wearing her hair loose with a shaggy, side-swept fringe. There was definitely something. She’d noticed it this morning at school, the eager way in which a couple of colleagues and many of the fourth- and fifth-year students had looked at her.
The scant sunlight that filtered through the thick foliage of the huge trees lining Avenida Elcano was insufficient to burn off the perennial dampness. Across from the road curving around the cemetery was a railway line heading west from the station. On the other side of the rails and chain-link fences she saw the squat houses of a neighbourhood that looked completely inaccessible from where they were, although an iron footbridge appeared further on. They talked to the beat their footsteps on the pavement. Conversation flowed, hopping from topic to topic: they tried to decide whether it was cold or not, whether the temperature could still be described as mild, which of the books by a friend they had in common was their favourite, how exhausting it was to go back to work at the school after the winter holidays. A trip to a festival in South Korea that Espina had had to turn down.
Espina said that she looked different. So he remembered her face. Different in a good or bad way, she asked. Good, of course. His lips formed his characteristic half-smile, revealing just a couple of teeth. His eyebrows arched, and his eyes settled on hers as he waved his hands to lend emphasis to what he was saying. He had grown unexpectedly eloquent. Or at least they didn’t stop talking for the entirety of their walk. Ten minutes along the wall of the municipal cemetery, passing the occasional side entrance, the odd locked gate, not much else. At one point she started to worry. Where was he taking her? It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Espina – although if she thought about it, what did she really know about him? – but if something happened to them, if they were accosted by a stranger, for instance, they’d have to shout pretty loud for someone to hear. We’ll be there in a second, Espina said calmly with an adventurer’s aplomb. It was as though he were getting ready to grab her arm, drag her to the next station along the line and jump onto the first train that came along to take her far away from there. Far, far away. Not that they could go very far on that line. The suburbs, or maybe a little further.
Wasn’t it strange, he was saying now, that Chacarita Cemetery had been built on what had then been the outskirts of the city and now it was right at the centre? Why had she told him that she was free until seven if they were just going on a brief detour, with maybe a quick coffee at the station afterwards? Who was asking these questions? Were they coming from her, or was this Adrian’s voice echoing inside of her? The guilt started to well up inside her again, and this time it must have reached the surface because her neck and face had grown warm. She was blushing as if she’d been caught with her hand in the till. Now she didn’t know what to think or what to do. She checked the time on her phone and started to write something endearing to Adrian. Then she thought again and put the phone back in her coat pocket with the message only half written.
The avenue curved in such a way that the German Cemetery almost snuck up on them. Espina told her that it was just a few metres more, and before they got to the end, or the beginning, of Avenida Elcano, on the western side of the gigantic expanse that was Chacarita Cemetery, opposite the first stop on the Lemos line, they arrived at the British Cemetery. They went in through a gate in the iron railings. It looked completely deserted. They walked up to a chapel. It was like a small park, a veritable secret garden of peace and quiet with paths wending around carefully tended lots, austere monuments and a silence broken by the remote sound of cars and buses heading down the avenue, the occasional train stopping at the station and intermittent birdsong. It was the meadow on the other side of the rainbow, an oasis in a bustling city. Espina seemed to know where he was going, and she let him take the lead. He had to take a photo of a grave he and a British friend of his had visited ten years ago. The grave belonged to the friend’s grandfather. He remembered that it was to the left and next to the wall but not much more. He knew the name and surname: they could go and look it up in the administrator’s office, but that wouldn’t be so much fun, he said.
They wandered around, peering at gravestones, reading names and inscriptions. No one else was to be seen, although there was ample evidence of the caretakers’ work: a rake and a shovel leaning against a tree, a neatly coiled-up hose, a tap with an erratic drip, recently mown grass and a wheelbarrow that was empty save for a metal watering can. Most of the trees were pines and limes, but there were others she didn’t know the names of. Was Espina the kind of man who knew the names of plants and trees? From the night that he’d kissed her on the film producer’s patio she remembered the warmth of his lips and how her body had throbbed and her left leg had juddered. Plus the sweet smell of summer flowers. It must have been jasmine.
The main asphalt path was criss-crossed with narrower gravel ones that were in turn crossed by even narrower trails only wide enough for one person. As they walked along them, they brushed against each other, or Espina stopped to let her pass and she could feel his eyes on her – they were rather less discreet than his half-smiles – on her back, the back of her head, neck and hands. They stopped in front of an ivy-draped grave. It belonged to the Hermosilla family. Her eye was caught by an inscription: Nemesia C de Hermosilla. 19th December, 1865–4th May, 1958 next to one for Sara Hermosilla. 16/11/1896–10/5/1958. One was much older than the other, but they’d died only six days apart. As though after the death of her mother, the daughter had died of sadness at the age of sixty-three, she said. Or maybe they were in a traffic accident and the mother died immediately but the daughter lingered on for a week, said Espina, who was immediately distracted by a stone that read: Peter Doherty, died 20th November, 1938. And then by one for Alejandro Rendina, who died in February 1968, two days after he was born. Espina said that he found the death of a baby devastating but also perfectly pure.
Espina pointed to a wooden bench sitting in a pool of winter sunlight. How long had it been since she’d slept with someone who wasn’t Adrian? Was that a good thing? Was that what it meant to be in love or was she just doing her duty as a girlfriend? Would five years with Adrian be the equivalent of three or four months with a guy like Espina, like with the olives and the steak? An extended, three-month weekend before he left you for the star of his next film. But what did that have to do with anything? They cut across a section of plots without tombstones or inscriptions. The earth was disturbed as though someone had recently been buried or old remains had been dug up. The soil had a different consistency under their feet. It was still loose and their shoes sunk in deeper than elsewhere.
It was originally called the Non-Conformist Cemetery, and its first location was on the corner of Juncal and Esmerelda. The first occupant had been one John Adams, a thirty-year-old carpenter. Before that, non-Catholics had been buried by the side of the river. As well as the British, it was also occupied by Germans, Americans, French and Jews. It quickly filled up, and they opened a second one, Victoria, which was shared by the British, Americans and Germans. Victoria Cemetery was at what’s now known as Pasco and Alsina. She knew where that was; her grandmother lived a couple of blocks away. You know where the plaza is now? Well, a hundred years ago it was a cemetery, but the city grew and the local residents campaigned to have it moved. So land was set aside behind Chacarita Cemetery: one section for the British and other Anglo-Saxons and another for the Germans. Meanwhile, Victoria Cemetery was abandoned. The decades passed, and it became a wasteland. A little while ago they turned it into a plaza. The graves weren’t moved, at least not the ones belonging to families that couldn’t afford to pay for the transfer. Any that were at least a metre and a half below ground were left intact. A few years ago they were doing renovation work in the plaza, and when they dug up the sandpit they found a marble tombstone for the grave of ten-month-old German girl along with bones, necklaces and bottles.
She rummaged in her bag for cigarettes. It was her first of the day. She couldn’t stop herself from telling him that the Chinese doctor she went to, whose name was Alejandra but she was fully Chinese, had told her not to smoke more than one or two a day. She had enough fire in her lungs already. But that wasn’t a bad thing at all, she hurriedly explained. Every time she went to see the doctor she got her talking. She valued everything she had to say about health and life in general; the doctor had a special kind of wisdom. Ever since he’d managed to get control of his vices, Espina had discovered that tobacco was the most pernicious but also the most inoffensive. To smoke a cigarette, he said longingly.
Espina asked her how her classes were going. Suddenly, talking to him about her work at school or the fact that he was showing interest in her everyday routine made things seem different, more vivid. She was glad that he was close by. It made her feel calm, bigger, inspired, and she didn’t think it ridiculous to assume that he was feeling the same way. He asked her if she was translating anything, and she made something up about a book of essays that were turning out to be pretty difficult, it was taking her longer than she’d expected. Maybe being close to Espina would mean that she lived life more intensely and stopped putting off what was really important. Then he asked after her students, how it felt to teach a class of teenagers, and she started to say that it was fine, it could be unbearable at times, but she liked it. He was a disaster at secondary school, but if he’d had a teacher like her, he said, he’d have learned English just to please her. He broke into another of his half-smiles.
Right behind the bench where they were sitting was a tombstone commemorating the Byrding family. Over the years it had been split in two by a tree trunk, very gradually, millimetre by millimetre. She could count the number of times they’d met on one hand, but each encounter had revealed a new facet of Espina. She was gradually beginning to sense that behind the womanizing dandy was something genuine and fragile, brilliant, if a little petulant. Her posture was defensive, as though she were anticipating some kind of move. The time he kissed her, an impartial observer, someone from the outside, a linesman or arbitrator of seduction, would not have ruled that she tried to push him away. But neither did she fully go along with the kiss. Rather, she allowed herself to be kissed until Espina pulled back a little to breathe and broke the spell. Then she’d said that she had to go, that this was wrong, very wrong. She had a boyfriend, please understand. She said sorry several times and then please as he walked her to the door.
Some time ago, when he’d just started out in the world of films, he’d worked for a film festival in the city. It was his job to accompany the foreign guests on their visit, day and night. One year he was tasked with accompanying Keith Reitzal, a kind of cult director. He was fun and jolly in spite of his years and asked very little of him. Except for one morning, the second to last, when Reitzal asked him to go with him somewhere: it was a ‘matter of life and death’. We got on the metro at Abasto and got off at Lacroze. I thought that he wanted a slice of pizza from one of the famous places around there, or maybe he wanted to visit Chacarita Cemetery to see the tombs of Gardel or Gatica. But we passed by the gates of the municipal cemetery and went on down the same pavement we came down today. I was surprised to see him walking so confidently through a little-known part of the city, somewhere I’d never been before. I suggested we take a taxi, it might be dangerous around here, but Reitzal said no. He was determined, he had to walk just like he’d done the last time. So you’ve been here before? Years ago the same festival had organized a retrospective in his honour. This isn’t my first visit to the city, but I fear that it might be my last, he said. He walked faster than I did. I had to make an effort to keep up. I started to worry about him, he looked as though he might collapse at any moment. When we finally got to the British Cemetery we went in and he led me straight to a grave at the back, to the left, next to the path that runs along the wall. There, we found a tombstone for someone with whom he shared a name: Keith Reitzal. His paternal grandfather. A British engineer sent to the Argentinian affiliate of a shipping company. He’d come with his wife and three children. My father was the youngest, he was just two at the time. Shortly after his arrival my grandfather was in a fatal accident at the port. At first, Keith’s grandmother decided to stay in the country: the company gave her a very generous pension and the house where they lived was a small mansion. But she couldn’t manage, she didn’t know the language and she had to raise three children on her own, so they went back. There were attempts to repatriate the remains, but then the war came and after that… Reitzal said, waving his hands in the same gesture he used to illustrate matters of ‘life and death’, it came to seem less important. His father always talked about his own father’s far-off grave in Argentina with a pain that was only alleviated by the knowledge that he had been moved to the British Cemetery, as though it were a foreign embassy of death, a small, neutral outpost of posthumous diplomacy.
Ever since his father’s death Reitzal had wanted to come to the country, but he’d never had a chance. He wasn’t going to go all that way just to visit a grave. Then he was invited to attend the festival. Back then he was still young and had walked on his own. But this time, he told me, as strange as it might seem, he’d agreed to come to talk about one of his films, something that he didn’t really do any more, just so he could stand in front of his grandfather’s grave. So what happened? she asked. Reitzal stood quietly for a few minutes, said Espina. The old man’s expression grew solemn but peaceful. I held out for as long as I could, but eventually I asked him if he’d rather be alone. That’s the last thing I want, he said. I don’t want to be alone. Like the sun, one should never look death in the face for too long. Take me away from here. Before they left the cemetery, Reitzal looked up at a Latin inscription. I asked him what it meant, and he told me in English that it was something like: ‘He who believes in me, shall live in death’. We hailed a taxi, and he asked me to take him for a drink. He had a craving for a herb-based German liqueur, but the closest thing we could find was Fernet, which he drank on its own with ice. Then he had another, and then we took a taxi so he would arrive in time to answer questions from the audience at the theatre where they were showing his film. That was at least ten years ago. He’d seen Keith at several other festivals across the world, but he’d never come back to Buenos Aires. A little while ago Keith had asked him to do him the favour of taking a photograph of his grandfather’s grave. He needed it for the cover of a book he was writing, an autobiography of a seventy-eight-year-old man, he said. Espina couldn’t decide whether he thought it was a great idea or just macabre.
As the afternoon went on, she felt them growing closer and closer. Their bodies, however, didn’t move at all. Espina sat upright and moved his arms as he spoke, his eyes shining. Every now and again he rubbed his nose and energetically scratched his head. There was something in his gestures, in his posture, in the way he was, a grace that could overwhelm any form of resistance. At one point he stretched out his hand to swipe at a mosquito, and she leaned back instinctively. Easy, he said. Espina was handsome. When he gave her an envelope containing the DVD with the copy of the film, he moved a little closer. A couple of nights later, watching the film alone in bed, she couldn’t help remembering his warm lips, the crazy beating of her heart, the mental effort it took to keep her leg still and the sweet smell of jasmine. But there was also the afternoon in the empty cemetery, hidden in a corner of the city, whiling away the afternoon with their chatter, as though they’d been teleported to the north of Europe for an hour and a half.
Throughout the afternoon she’d been worried that Espina would try to kiss her before they said goodbye and had mentally prepared a number of different ploys to evade him. Please, please. Actually she just had one: she’d been with a man for years. It had been right there, on the tip of her tongue, so much so that even though Espina never made a move, she said it anyway. He’d asked whether they lived together and she’d said, We have moved in together. It was an odd, stupid choice of words by which she’d meant that they had lived together in the past but it hadn’t worked out. But, of course, he’d interpreted it differently. He’d thought she’d just moved in with him and was living with him now, a misunderstanding that took a long time to clear up.
They would see each other again, many times, but they didn’t know that then. She asked him about the German Cemetery. It was similar to this one but neater, better looked after. Why don’t we take a peek? It’s just about to close; maybe they could do this again some time, he said. She thought that now the silent walk back to Chacarita would be awkward. Maybe it was better to say she was in a hurry and take a taxi. Had he meant to say that he wanted to see her again? She’d have agreed in a second, she’d have signed up right there and then, although she didn’t like to lie to Adrian. Telling him that she was going on walks around secret corners of the city with Espina was out of the question. Was it? She’d have to do something about this.
As if he knew that a kiss in these circumstances was out of the question, Espina had been cautious and carefree. He hadn’t made a move, or if he had it was imperceptible, millimetre by millimetre. She felt a mixture of relief and disappointment. What if he wasn’t attracted to her any more? She stood up and, rubbing her arms, said that the cold had got into her bones, they’d better go back. It was getting late.