By the time Ryan was born, the oldest of his five siblings was already in high school, and his ornery father’s terrible tantrums had more or less subsided. Metal ashtrays were tossed less frequently through the house, and bad afternoons at the track seldom led to threats of bodily harm. The old man even managed moments of quasi-affection—patting little Ryan on his head when he came home from school and surrendering the television to him on Thursday evenings when he got to be a teenager so he could watch Matlock and, his hero, Perry Mason.
By the time he had reached his forties, Ryan was the only member of his family in contact with the old man, calling every Sunday morning over to the squalid one-bedroom in Bayonne where his father moved after their mother had left him. Ryan let himself be taken out to lunch once a month at the VIP diner down the block for which his father would dress in one of his frayed leisure suits from the seventies and order desiccated roast chicken or London broil with glutinous gravy.
When no one picked up that Sunday, Ryan tried every twenty minutes until the middle of the day, pretending that the old man might have gone out though the bar didn’t open until noon and the dogs weren’t raced on weekends.
The drive to Bayonne took nearly an hour through church traffic, and the odor coming out through the humidity-warped door hit Ryan in the face before he even tried turning the knob. He paused and took a deep breath to steel himself for what lurked beyond the threshold. Neither defending the guilty at the public defender’s office nor living in the cramped home in Guttenberg with his wife and son calmed him particularly, but the thought of July in Maine at Goose Rocks Beach brought him some peace of mind: its cool sea air the perfect antidote to corrupt and crumbling Hudson County, New Jersey, where he’s had to refuse bribes and keep clear of questionable congressman. The place was too far from God, as he liked to say, and too close to New York City.
Imaginary surf sprayed his face, and sand tickled his toes as he easily broke through the flimsy door and walked down the creaky linoleum floor into the bathroom where his father lay on the floor covered in bloody glass shards. He’d toppled against the mirror when the stroke hit. The odor of the place is what Ryan can’t shake off, rotting cantaloupe on the kitchen table, decomposing father on the bathroom floor.
The fantastically New England Fourth of July parade doesn’t catch him in the throat like it should. He and Patty have dressed seven-year-old Peter in a Spiderman costume and wait with the hearty Maine crowd and occasional other summer renter just outside town for the parade to begin. Yesterday’s rain has disappeared overnight, leaving a cool bite in the air and perfectly blue sky, but Ryan can only concentrate on the ruddy local men and their sincere-looking wives and thank God he hadn’t persuaded Patty to move up north with him and put up a shingle. There is a stark absence of robbing and divorcing here, suing and defrauding.
The parade moves glacially down the main drag past the turreted Victorians on one side and the bike path along the rocky beach on the other.
Lying unlocked just off the path, Ryan spots a sexy Italian racing bike, and even more impressive, a Vespa with a key in its ignition. He remembers sipping a Bud Light in Patty’s parents’ kitchen after their first trip to Maine, praising the unlocked vehicles of New England and listening to Patty’s mother’s racist insinuations—Hudson County where there were too many blacks and Hispanics to leave anything unattended.
Turning his head away from the bikes, he looks across the street at the unlocked houses and remembers the imbecilic burglar he’d visited in Rahway the day after he discovered his father. Not smart enough to disarm a decent security system, Sal Starita had been captured speeding recklessly away from his crime. The smell of Rahway Prison returns to Ryan’s nostrils, and he hears the heavy prison gates clanging closed behind him.
He feels hemmed in, as big adults in baggy short pants, babies, and yapping dogs crowd them on all sides. His queerly sensitive nose picks up perfumes and deodorants, halitosis and diapers.
“I can’t take this anymore,” he whispers to Patty, who looks mutely back at him.
“Patty, sorry, my stomach,” he yells a moment later, clutching his belly and tearing off in the opposite direction of the parade.
Ten minutes later finds him panting for breath and trudging down the deserted section of the main drag past which the parade had already processed. He catches the eye of an attractive blond about his age sunning herself in front of a bed and breakfast and moves toward her like he has something to say, but nothing comes out and he beats a hasty retreat, picking up speed again down the path.
While ambling along, staring at the waves as they crash against the rocks, he feels his knee knock into a mountain bike leaning against the seawall.
“Fucking asshole,” he says, North Jersey resounding hollowly through the empty beachscape, “shit fucking dick.”
He shakes his leg out and appraises the bike, unlocked and brand new. He kicks it, then, then picks it up and holds it apologetically. Coolly, he checks out the empty beach, the path, the houses on the other side of the street.
Sal Starita’s beady eyes fix on him from Rahway, urging him on.
When Ryan mounts the bike, gently like he’s trying to seduce it, and takes it tentatively forward, neither the seagulls swooping down into the water nor the hermit crabs crawling over the sand seem particularly disturbed.
About a football field later, he dutifully twists it around and starts pedaling back, but when he gets to the spot where he found it and climbs off, his foot gets caught on the seat and he topples onto the concrete ground. A few seconds later the mountain bike tumbles down on top of him, blackening his eye.
He feels woozy when he gets back up, his bacon-and-egg breakfast tasting awful in his mouth. His back itches ferociously just where he can’t scratch it, and a deadening pain starts up in his brain.
A momentary lapse hadn’t been enough, and the moment he’s back on the bike, his body starts to reassemble, the pains lessening, the itching going away.
Fiercely, he surges forward as the cool breeze blows through his thinning hair and the distant sounds of the parade float up to his ears. Reaching the hill that marks the end of the beach, he continues on the road as it splits away from the sea up into the woodsy barrio right above town.
Panting and perspiring, he comes to a halt in front of a down-on-its-luck house with deteriorating aluminum siding and a sagging front porch. Its driveway has no vehicles, but its front yard is crammed with plastic toys.
The residents are likely at the parade, but he walks up to the door and rings the buzzer just in case. After the tinny bell echoes several times through the house, he grabs the knob and tries to turn it.
The knob won’t budge.
And without any warning, thatit happens again. A tremor snakes back up his spine, knocking him is body about. He wants toalmost vomits but can only dry-heaves.
Since discovering his rotting father, he’s developed this problem with thresholds—his mother’s on Bergenline Avenue, his brother’s in Staten Island. Foul tastes fill his mouth as he approaches them. HThey make his torso tremors, his shoulders shiver.
The knob is still stuck when he takes another crack at it, and relief washes over him. He just has to dispose of the bike somewhere, walk back into town, and return to his life.
But when he tries it one last time for good measure, the damn thing creaks open and he finds himself in a living room covered with more broken-down toys and reeking of cat piss and recently fried meat. He stops his nose up with his fingers and watches a bedraggled gray tabby yowl from her perch on the ripped-up couch across from a TV muted to a cartoon channel.
Everything looks dirt cheap, but he doesn’t need to take anything valuable. He picks up a broken action figure, flips through a People magazine from the stack on the floor, but the thought of taking something they won’t miss doesn’t sate the emptiness at the bottom of his throat, nor calm the hives in the pit of his spine.
Outside on the bike a moment later, he wraps the cord around his neck, the one that had connected their television to the cable box, then sails down the street toward home, giggling about the existential despair he’s inflicted.
Ryan’s heart beats calm and steady as he lugs the mountain bike through their rented apartment into the unfinished basement, which he and his family have hardly explored. While covering the bike and cord with an old yellow-stained sheet, he gets caught with the genuine runs.
After vacating his bowels in the bathroom upstairs, he sees on his watch that Patty and Peter (the Ps he calls them) should soon arrive at the community center where the parade concludes.
Peter’s face lights up when he sees him in the distance, and Patty looks relieved. But when she gets close enough to see the black eye, a look of distress falls across her face and she wants to know if he’s planning on telling her what happened.
“Not really,” says Ryan, resenting herthe way she used her prosecutor’s voice.
“I just tripped,” he revises when he sees she’s not letting it go.
Peter grunts impatiently, eager to get back to the fair, and Patty shrugs her shoulders and touches her husband on his arm. His eyes well up when he sees how sweet she’s being. She’s letting him the hook as he’s got a pretty good track record, but he’s got to start acting normal again. He knows from his father’s example that wives won’t stick around if you don’t.he’ll lose his wife if he can’t.
They eat hotdogs, drink soda, then huddle protectively around their only child as he rides a pony and sinks enough baskets to dunk the red-faced mayor in a pool of water.
The clouds roll in, and the family gets out the Monopoly set.
Enthusiastic but not very calculating, Peter spends too much on houses and hotels, and a mild run of bad luck (a go-to-jail card and a case of community chest) takes him to the bridge of bankruptcy.
The storm on his face reveals an approaching tantrum, so Patty notes that he’s bought seven hotels and asks with a kindly gleam if they happen to be playing “seven hotel” Monopoly. Then she elbows Ryan who allows that they are.
In this new version, the player with seven hotels gets half of everyone cash. Peter glances nervously at his father while accepting his new stash.
Ryan smiles kindly but burns inside as more and more corrupt Hudson County values get imported to Maine. He imagines a seven-hotel Monopoly set resting alongside the stolen bicycle and the cable cord.
On the following morning, sunlight pours from the sky.
Ryan looks off at the ocean, listens to his wife reading softly to his son on the beach, then bolts to his feet.
If he pleads more stomach trouble, she’ll send him to a gastroenterologist. He doesn’t have to explain himself in any case. Years of being trustworthy have built him credit.
“Going for a stroll,” he says, tipping his the beach hat.
“Alrighty,” says Patty with the quizzical smile she saves for defense attorneys, “enjoy.”
Today will be trickier as there’s no parade to suck people away from their homes.
At the end of the beach, he climbs the hill, striding past the house he’d broken into two days before. An old Chevy is now in its driveway, and a man is cleaning a grill next to it with a hose and some steel wool.
An internal engine tilts Ryan toward the man. Another revving has him wishing the guy a “good day.”
“Morning,” says the man. Fortyish with hung-over eyes, he has a physique like a bear, and his dismal expression reminds Ryan of his father’s in his last years. Then Ryan tips his hat again ridiculously like a character from a thirties movie and pushes farther down the street in search of a house with no one home. The next one has an SUV in its driveway, the one after that some dirty, blond kids playing in a sandbox. Finally, at the end of the stretch just before the road disappears into the marsh, Ryan passes a house devoid of people or vehicles. It’s made of a chintzy rock unsuccessfully evoking medieval glamour and set back a bit from the street; its thick and weedy lawn can’t have been mowed in weeks.
He walks up to the front door and rings the bell, trying to think of what to say if someone turns out to be home. When there’s no answer, he knocks softly until his hand gets the better of him and the sound of banging reverberates through the air.
After another ring just for the hell of it and three more knocks, he grabs hold of the knob, having forgotten that he’d plan to wrap his hand in his shirtsleeve before touching anything.
To his surprise and considerable consternation, the knob refuses to budge. He wonders what sort of losers lock their door in Goose Rocks Beach.
After looking up and down the block, he smashes into the flimsy door with his right shoulder. Nothing happens so he tries again with the other side. His shoulders are achy and bruised by the third try, but the door seems to loosen, and a hard kick finishes the job.
His stomach stays steady as he storms into the cold, clammy inside, and he wonders if he might finally be recovering from his discovery that spring. Once his eyes adjust to the darkness, he sees he’s in an empty room with a water-logged linoleum floor. Rust streaks the walls, and everything looking foreclosed and forgotten. He slips carefully forward from the front room into an empty hallway, fearing a tumble through rotting floorboards and wondering what he can possibly find worth stealing. Toward the back of the house, he enters a room with a dusty red carpet and some actual furniture: an armchair, a VCR, and a pile of videos—Analyze That, The Gangs of New York—detritus, he decides, of some long-failed marriage, the abandoned beach house.
Taking a different route back to the front door, he slips into a mildewy kitchen with a rusty fridge. His heart bangs relentlessly, he smells the sharp reek of rot, and his mind conjures bodies left to decay—forgotten spinster aunts, drug-addled cousins. This was the danger of walking into strange houses.
He imagines himself back in Judge Dolan’s courtroom, this time representing himself on some heavily circumstantial murder rap, when the sun coming in through the foggy windows reflects on something plastic on the chipped Formica table—a credit card.
Not likely valid in this millennium, he thinks, as he grabs it and takes a closer look. But the Chase Visa actually doesn’t expire until the next day. The first name on it is Evan, the last Cohen.
Not so many Jews in these parts, thinks Ryan, as he strides back down the street with the card in his pocket, tipping his hat again to the man whose cable cord he’d stolen. Could a freckly, red-haired man such as himself get away with using it?
The next morning presents him the problem of using Cohen’s card to buy something for the unfinished basement without asking for “alone time” with Patty, the word they’d used during the terrible summer Peter was conceived when they had nearly split.
So this is what he does.
While driving to the sea, another blissfully sunny day, he double-parks in front of the overpriced beach store. Known in his family for penny-pinching, Ryan can only hope what happens next won’t seem suspicious.
“Just a sec,” he murmurs while dashing into the store.
He has only a few minutes before Patty grabs Peter and darts inside to investigate. While appraising the racks of towels, T-shirts, and bottles of suntan lotion, Ryan chances across a large inflated blue whale, which may puzzle his family but will fit perfectly well into the unfinished basement with the rest of the loot.
Grabbing it, he dumps it unceremoniously on the counter along with Evan Cohen’s Visa card, valid for scarcely hours more.
The stumpy old cashier mumbles something Ryan can’t grasp, so he waves the card impatiently.
“Can’t a man just buy something?” he demands, hearing discordant North Jersey in his voice.
The woman explains that he’s got the store model. He has to find one that’s not inflated and blow it up when they get to the beach. He goes back to get one, leaving the card in her hand and raising all sorts of alarms in his head—that she knows Cohen, that he’s too Irish-looking to be Cohen, that she’s got some intuitive old Maine nose for thieves. Inarticulate explanations for why he has Cohen’s card sputtering through his head, he takes the receipt from the old lady, signs it, and stuffs the plus-size whale into the plastic bag she’d given him.
Puzzled at first, Patty succumbs to the charms of the whale when it gets unveiled at the beach and even starts to inflate it herself. While watching her blow up the plastic whale purchased with the stolen credit card, something peculiar overcomes him, and he has to turns over on his stomach to conceal the arousal in his swim trunks.
Thursday PM through Sunday AM
Since the whale isn’t exactly stolen, it doesn’t need to be stashed in the basement but can rest with the other beach materials in the garage. The elation, the slight high, the physical desire that its presence evokes in Ryan makes good work of both Thursday, and Friday and Saturday nights after Peter has gone to sleep. Ryan devours Patty on the queen-sized bed like he hasn’t in years. On Saturday night, as he begins to climax, Ryan imagines speeding through Goose Rocks on a stolen Vespa, squealing dramatically to a halt in front of an empty beach bungalow. The buoyant nights make them pleased with themselves all weekend, no longer looking at the younger, more sexually prodigious couples with quite the same envy. They may be falling into middle-age, but everything is not quite over in the area that both Ryan’s and Patty’s mothers referred to austerely as “down there.” Maybe it’s their explosive nights, their sun-flushed days, all the fresh lobster; in any case, the criminal itch subsides. Ryan cuts the credit card into small pieces and tosses them into the trash.
At the crack of dawn, it returns with a vengeance. Neither sunburn nor mosquitoes can explain the itch, a physical sensation sneaking deceitfully from his ankles to the backs of his knees, his fevered scratching bloodying his sheets. After he’s writhed miserably in bed for as long as he can stand, he puts on his bathrobe and sneaks out into the day.
The loud sound of the Suburban ignition rattles his nerves, so he takes the crappy bike that comes with the rental out of the garage. He nearly falls off when his bathrobe gets stuck in the chain, and he hears conversations about credit cards and cable cords. He leans the bike against a tree, and while approaching a Mini Cooper that might have a key in its ignition, the thought of jail catches him in the throat. There were other dangers—the inevitable divorce, the shame that Peter would carry with him. But it’s Rahway prison that makes the taste of last night’s meal rise back up his throat.
The most effective defense for the glaringly guilty would never hold as he wasn’t abused as a child though his mother did die of breast cancer when he was barely out of college, and no one can prove the priests hadn’t molested him during his altar-boy adolescence.
The Mini Cooper is locked, and the itch is worse than ever. He wriggles his ass against the back of the bike seat, then scuttles off in search of an emptier side street, knowing he must hit the first possible house then come right back home before Patty catches wind of his absence.
The only house on Gardner Lane with no car in its driveway looks impenetrably plywooded. His mood is plunging, stomach rumbling, when he sees an aluminum-sided prefab with no vehicle in the tiny driveway.
The greasy doorknob gives in easily to his touch, and the sickly sweet smell of aging hits him squarely in the face. The room is crammed with old blankets and quilts, the coffee table in its center full of crumbs and stains. Black-and-white photos that, which look European, fill the walls. The floor creaks as he steps inside, but no one seems to stir, and he gets the queasy feeling that the old foreign lady who lives here hasn’t made it through the night.
“Vinny,” a voice demands from the back of the house, “why you here so early, Vinny?”
He instinctually makes the sign of the cross, relieved that the lady is still alive, when her walker starts shuffling from the back. The old guinea will take a while to get to the living room, but she’s on her way.
Unfreezing himself, he grabs a photo lying face down on a coffee table and a dish of Paleolithic jelly beans and flies out of the house. There is no place for the plate, so he Frisbees it away, hearing it smash into pieces in someone else’s driveway.
After some furious pedaling, he makes it home to find both his Ps still asleep. He skulks into the basement and dumps the photo (of a youngish police officer with an eighties haircut who must be the old biddy’s son) onto a yellow-stained mattress. He considers scattering the jelly beans anarchically through the basement but crams them into his mouth instead. They, too, must be from the eighties but contain too many preservatives to rot in any old Italian lady’s lifetime.
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday
Sated, sickened by the insanity that has descended on him, Ryan’s body no longer itches, but his head feels heavily fogged.
That tight-lipped half smile has frozen onto Patty’s face. She doesn’t bother to ask what’s wrong, but it will all become clear when his crimes get exposed. She definitely won’t stick by him like the wives of the hooker-loving governor and the sexting congressman. Of course, no press conference will be required of him, just another Hudson County attorney caught up in something he shouldn’t be.
As the days of the vacation drone on, he slips occasionally away from his Ps, climbs down into the basement, and gazes uncomprehendingly at the bicycle, the cable cord, and the photograph.
They plan to stop for a night in Jamaica Plains on their way back to New Jersey, as an old college chum is having a barbecue for them. Bright and early Sunday morning, they will drive back to New Jersey since they are both due in court on Monday.
While straightening up the house, climbing into the Suburban, and driving out of Goose Rocks Saturday morning, Ryan feels his heart pound worryingly, and his eyes blink in the hazy sun, but once they merge onto the southbound highway, the cloud starts to dissolve.
By the time they’ve crossed into Massachusetts, he feels deliriously happy as his ailment doesn’t seem to cross state lines. Uncharacteristically gregarious, he downs four beers at the barbecue and regales his hosts with tales of stupid criminals.
“If you catch them, you might as well keep them,” Patty wearily declares, “you know they’re going to go right back out there and get caught again.”
Ryan wakes up with a start on the fold-out couch. He doesn’t see Jim and Julia’s messy living room but the contents of an unfinished basement two hours north, and a nosy landlady going through it after the season is over and asking questions across town. The story of the disappearing cable cord meets up with the story of the one appearing in his rented house.
He looks at his watch and sees it’s only two AM.
Not fifteen minutes later, he’s cruising at seventy, veering toward eighty, hoping against hope that he can get there and back without Patty noticing he’s gone. Once there, he bursts through the feeble screen door in back, striding calmly through the house and down into the basement.
But the minute he’s back on the road, he has real trouble convincing himself he doesn’t have anything more incriminating in back than a bicycle, a photograph, and a cable cord, that the rank odor emanating from the Suburban really only comes from the melon that Patty had briefly forgotten there the week before.
When Portland approaches, he takes a random exit and follows it with a series of random turns, landing him in a neighborhood of clapboard houses. He pulls into the driveway of a particularly tiny one and deposits the cable cord and the photograph on its dime-size front yard as a kind of offering. The mountain bike won’t stay up, so he lays it on the ground and strokes its back tire affectionately goodbye before scurrying back to his son, his wife, and his guilty clients, the corpseish smell of rotten melon still pervading the Suburban.
DAVID WINNER's novel, Tyler's Last, an homage to Patricia Highsmith and Tom Ripley, was released by Outpost19 this October. His first novel, The Cannibal of Guadalajara, won the 2009 Gival Press Novel Award and was nominated for the National Book Award. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Village Voice, the Iowa Review, the Kenyon Review, Fiction, Confrontation, Joyland, Bookforum, Dream Catcher, among others, as well as being included in Novel Strategies, a Pearson/Prentice Hall anthology for college students. He is the fiction editor of the American (www.theamericanmag.com), a monthly magazine based in Rome.
PHOTO CREDIT: Elise Tak
Elise Tak is a visual artist based in Brooklyn, New York. In her work she uses the imagery of film and popular culture to create a rich fictional and visionary world, while at the same time discussing contemporary, sociopolitical issues. Elise Tak works in both traditional media and in modern digital media using 3D software (such as Cinema4D, zBrush and several renderers) and image editors like Photoshop. By continually experimenting with new developments she continually pushes her own artistic skill to new limits.
For over 30 years already Elise Tak has dedicated herself to the creation of an ever-growing body of work, featuring the lives and careers of more than 10 fictional, yet ‘world famous’, movie actors. It is an intricate play between reality and fiction, between life and art, because whereas in the movies, real living actors create a false existence, in Tak’s work even these actors are pure fiction. Up to now she has ‘given birth’ to 10 movie actors, with different ages and from different backgrounds. Their names are: Michael Okada, Thomas Kirby, Marian Xiao, Pete Banich, Marvin Dunbar, Forough Amirshahi, Jeni Wright, Roy Rebergen, Charlie Pep and Anita Carbajal.
When, what, where (and not why)
Elise Tak was born in the Netherlands and lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Since the early 1990s her work has been shown in leading galleries, museums and art institutes like Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam, Frans Hals Museum/De Hallen, Museum Helmond (The Netherlands); Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art (USA); Musée de Luxembourg, Musée d’Art Moderne Contemporain Strasbourg, FRAC Poitou-Charentes, Le Consortium (France). Elise Tak also has several largescale public art projects to her credit. Her animation short Suicide Notes (2006) was produced in collaboration with the two-time Emmy-award winning composer Patricia Lee Stotter. Tak was also was the projection designer for the play Flashback, which ran in a New York City theater in 2007. Her series of stills illustrating Gogol’s The Nose originally was made for the short film Here’s What I Like... Russian Literature. And Now I’ll Tell You Why (2011), directed by Abigail Zealy Bess and written and conceived by Amy Staats. Elise Tak is also active as a curator. Het latest exhibition A New York State of Mind (Stories from the Unusual Suspects) was presented at De Cacaofabriek in The Netherlands in 2018 and featured a selection of artists from New York.
The prisoner would remain nameless as far as Besim was concerned. He had first learned his name months ago when he had arrived at the prison. Besim prided himself on knowing the first and last names of each one of the prisoners. He’d try to be generous—to the best of his ability and to the best of their circumstances, but he learned quickly that most of the prisoners had no interest in exchanging niceties with him and that most spit at the officers as soon as their backs were turned. Still, despite subtle displays of protest, they obeyed the rules, too weak and too tired to try their hand at debauchery.
The prisoner coughed violently. Why, thought Besim to himself, why gamble with your life you simple-minded fool? His fist went numb and then stung as it made contact with the prisoner’s cheekbone. It was dim and cold in the room and the nameless one’s pain echoed off the walls as he grunted and moaned in response. He worked hard to breathe and Besim wondered if he had broken his nose.
“Get up,” he muttered, as he shook his fist to make the pain go away. The prisoner’s head hung limply to the left and he could’ve passed for dead had it not been for the labored breathing.
“Get up,” Besim repeated calmly.
“Do you know why you are here?” Besim asked between breaths as he tried to pull him up and straighten him against the wall. The prisoner didn’t flinch at the sound of his voice. “You were sent to the camp because you cannot be trusted. You were then brought here because you proved us right.”
Edi stopped running and bent over to catch his breath. His adrenaline was draining with the sunlight and in the silence of the forest; reality was beginning to envelop him. His mistakes rose to the surface of his consciousness and his body trembled in the cool evening air.
I should have waited until after roll call, he thought to himself. I should have waited for darkness to run. The forest was thicker than he had anticipated and he was, at first, grateful he had not taken off into the night. But now he realized his grave mistake in not waiting for the dark, after each person in the camp had been called out and accounted for. He hadn’t been on the run for more than twenty minutes before he heard shouting in the distance, knowing instantly that the woods had been infiltrated with soldiers looking for him.
Beyond escaping the confines of camp, Edi didn’t have much of a plan and found himself hopelessly lost with the onset of night. There was still a childlike and primitive fear of the dark that he secretly harbored; the old trees blocked out the late sun, and their tangled trunks and abandoned foliage below created a mausoleum-like effect and Edi only hoped he wouldn’t die in the vast wilderness, alone and remembered only as an afterthought, a cautionary tale. He tried to shake off thoughts of his mortality, certain he had left the worst behind him. But the evening’s cacophonous sounds echoed; the sound of snapping twigs and leaves scattering and a slight wind picking up. Edi looked around briefly before setting his aim on one direction and moving towards it.
He thought about his only companionship at the camp, a priest he had befriended upon his arrival, and found himself wishing more than ever that he wasn’t alone. The priest was different from all the others. Educated and socially aware, he nourished a part of Edi’s mind that Edi didn’t realize had been starving. Their discussions at first were the usual: “Where are you from? Who is your father? Where is he from?” Eventually they began to carry on deeper discussions in broken whispers late into the night. In this country’s new era, religion had become the forbidden fruit—one bite of it and you were destined to a life of destitution, of punishment and deprivation. And while their conversations in daylight veered back and forth between family history and stories of their lives before the camp, after hours there were questions about the afterlife and salvation. Eventually, even those discussions would shift to ghost stories and old family folklore.
At night when the last family name had been called and accounted for and everyone retired to their homes, Edi would make his way back to the priest and knock twice lightly on the door; twice—never three times. Three knocks foreshadowed an impending death. Quietly the door would open, the priest would smile and stand to the side for Edi to walk in.
“Did I ever tell you about…” were the priest’s first words and suddenly the night would begin. Edi wasn’t the most enlightened man but he believed his presence had become just as integral to the priest’s life as the priest had become to his.
Edi held his side as he walked in the darkness, the cramp deepening with every breath he took. The forest seemed to grow louder the later it got and Edi wondered how many different animals thrived as nocturnal beings. He tried to recall what made him decide to leave the semblance of security he had accidentally stumbled upon, but nothing seemed to justify his current state of hopelessness. The last discussion he and the priest shared was the first time Edi dominated the conversation, talking about his fears and his insecurities and what he worried would happen to them both if they stayed at the camp. Somehow, through his incessant ramblings, Edi decided he would escape to run through the woods and over the mountains to Serbia and seek asylum. He urged the priest to join him, referring to the trip as an adventure.
“Have you read anything by Jack London?” He asked the priest. “Have you ever wished you lived in the pages of a story that was so powerful, so exciting, that your life feels like nothing in comparison? As if you’re just waiting for the real part of this existence to begin?”
The priest studied Edi’s face in the dim light. Edi was a good but simple man. He listened to the priest’s stories like a child weighing every one of his mother’s words. He knew Edi respected him as an older man and as a religious man; this was the first time the priest found Edi sounding provocative. He worried for where Edi’s mind was going, and yet he couldn’t smother the small flame of admiration that he felt deep in his chest.
“You have a surefire chance of being killed on this run,” he responded. “Stay here and remain with the rest of us. We don’t have it as bad as the others, you know this well. It could be alright.” The priest vowed he’d never forget the look of disappointment on Edi’s face, replaced just as quickly with a look of utter determination.
“I wasn’t born to be treated like cattle. Neither were you. Neither is anyone else here. I’m leaving whether or not you come with me, but a man can always use a friend on the road.”
The discussion died down soon after and the priest regaled him once again with stories of the times before the quick rise of communism. He talked and talked until Edi was no longer laughing or responding in return and he realized Edi had fallen asleep, and the priest hoped by morning Edi would wake with a clear mind and a laugh, telling him how he was just overly excited the night before and was kidding around with his talk of running.
“Tell me one thing,” Besim said after taking a long drag on his cigarette. He sat in a chair across the room from the prisoner, who was still slouched on the floor. He was conscious now, however, and he stared back at Besim from where he sat.
“Tell me one thing,” Besim repeated. “Where did you think you’d end up? What did you think would happen?”
The prisoner coughed once in response. One, two, three knocks against the concrete wall; he scraped his knuckles on the rough surface before smirking at the officer and found Besim smirking back.
“You smug son-of-a-bitch. Did you think you’d make it out of the woods alive? And if you did, did you think the Serbs would welcome you with open arms?”
“Leaving the lion’s den to walk into the wolves’ den,” responded Edi. “Wolves can at least be tamed.” Besim only stared at him.
They sat on opposite sides of the room studying each other as if they were underwater and the sounds of the outside world were everything on the surface. There was a kind of freedom in Edi’s situation and he realized he was untouchable. He knew they were both killing time until he would be led outside to be lined up against the wall. Perhaps this was the ultimate freedom a person could obtain. The adventure he had so passionately talked to the priest about could be this, and this life was merely a preparation for what lay beyond.
When he was being carried across the camp after being caught, Edi refused to make eye contact with the priest. He saw him in the distance, amongst the small crowd that had gathered quietly but turned his head and looked straight in front of him as they passed through the crowd. He didn’t want to the priest to see defeat on his face or the sense of regret he harbored. Edi’s final thought before they carried him indoors and shut the door behind him was: well, isn’t this a bitch? And he spit blood on the ground.
Luckily the night sky was clear enough for the moon to shed some light for guidance. Edi felt like an intruder in the wilderness each time his feet disrupted the quiet. He was too large, too loud, and too clumsy to permanently exist there. The deeper into the forest he thought he was going, the deeper he dug into his mind to dust off conversations he’d had with the priest. If he focused enough of his energy on those inner dialogues, he could almost pretend the priest was with him.
Somewhere in the distance he heard a twig snap. And then another twig. And then another. He stopped and caught his breath, waiting to hear more. In the few moments of silence that followed, Edi quickly tiptoed behind a tree and crouched slowly until he squatted with his head resting on his knees.
Fuck, they found me, he thought to himself. Fuck. Fuck. They can’t take me. And he began to think about God. He wanted to believe that his close relationship with the priest would grant him protection. He kept his head on his knees and closed his eyes, praying for invisibility.
Suddenly Edi sat up straight and listened closely. It wasn’t a twig snapping or the sound of footsteps. He listened closely and wondered exactly how dehydrated he had become in the last several hours. Just before he resigned himself to absolute madness and sleep deprivation, he heard it again, clearer and closer. It was his name. Someone said his name. From somewhere in the distance, a voice was calling out to him. Not the priest. Not the officers. It was a voice he knew; the soft, crackly voice—like glass cracking under pressure—of his grandmother who had long since passed. He felt a lump in his throat as he battled with himself; the desire to reach out to her and respond—fighting with the knowledge that he must keep quiet, followed by the realization that he was, in fact, facing his own mortality.
The corners of his eyes filled with tears as he remembered the endless talk of ghosts and folklore with the priest.
“Have I ever told you about a neighbor of my mother’s,” began the priest, “who swore she had heard names being shouted one night as she walked home from visiting her sister? She didn’t think anything of it until she realized the names being called were those of the dead.”
Edi felt his body break out in goosebumps the first time he heard it and again now as he sat bewildered behind the tree. He knew enough not to respond; his grandmother had told him the same lore as a child. A superstitious warning meant to scare children into silence before bedtime, you never respond to your name being called by someone who was deceased.
The third and final time he heard his name, it caught in the wind and disappeared around him. He didn’t know how long he remained behind that tree, frozen in terror, but when he finally moved, he ran. He hardly noticed the sky beginning to lighten or the tremendous noise he made running through the brush and tripping over roots. Nothing seemed like fantasy anymore, like the folktales he and the priest relished sharing with each other.
He stopped to briefly catch his breath and squeezed his eyes shut to keep out the possible sight of anything he shouldn’t be seeing. The memory of all those stories and superstitions crept into his mind and when he opened his eyes, Edi thought he saw a movement off to one side of him. He wanted to yell out his grandmother’s name but was scared he might actually be experiencing the impossible. He had always believed in listening to your body and his heart was now fluttering in his chest.
Why is she doing this to me, he thought as he stood in the middle of a clearing. He heard another twig snap somewhere behind him before closing his eyes and putting his hands up to his ears. In his mind, Edi saw his grandmother as she used to be, long gray hair pinned up into a tight bun. He had always been close to her and wondered if coming face-to-face with his grandmother would be the worst fate to encounter. He opened his eyes and blinked a few times to get rid of the floating dots hovering there. In the distance, in the forest’s darkness he saw a figure moving slowly towards him. Edi choked back tears as he walked towards it, arms back down at his sides.
“Grandmother…” his voice shook.
“Over here! I got him! I got him!” Edi recognized the man’s voice from the camp.
“Please. No,” was all he could mutter while taking a few steps back before he was grabbed and pushed from the side, and he went flying.
He could feel the sunlight even though he saw only darkness. Prior to the walk to the wall, he was blindfolded and led outside. His shoes, worn and thin, created a poor barrier between his feet and the ground. He pressed his toes into the pebbles and ground them around until he created a little crater. He found a strange sense of comfort in the gravelly texture and in the sound the dirt and stones made rubbing against each other. The sound of pebbles skipping and feet being quickly shuffled let him know he was not alone.
Edi felt a hand press his shoulder roughly, until his tied hands scraped against the wall behind him. He brushed his fingertips lightly against the rough surface and felt the warmth of the sunlight soaked up by the concrete. He pressed his palms against the wall as if gaining energy from the heat, as if he could melt into the structure and hide away there forever. Edi heard words but didn’t process them, didn’t want to give them any weight. Instead, he rubbed his hands against the wall and ground his toe into the ground and used up his last thought on how inanimate objects don’t feel or do, they just are. He felt, for the first time in his life, jealous of something that wasn’t alive.
The priest, though at first considered a prime candidate for relentless harassment and random searches of his home, was diligent about keeping to himself and completing his work to the best of his ability. And because of this—over time—he was eventually left alone and considered one of the more decent prisoners the officers dealt with. His reputation was his ticket into Edi’s home where he was being kept, just before being taken away to the prison.
He knew he shouldn’t have been shocked by Edi’s condition: swollen eye, blood crusted over his nostrils and upper lip, but he just stared. He let the heat of anger and hopelessness wash over him without flinching and without giving away his sadness to Edi.
“Well,” whispered Edi, his voice hoarse. “Aren’t you glad you didn’t come?” And he smiled. The priest walked over to him and sat down on the floor.
The priest did something he wouldn’t have risked otherwise, if it hadn’t been for Edi. Leaning forward, he held up his hand and made a small, swift cross in the air and began to murmur a prayer.
“Tell me something, Father,” Edi interrupted. “Is there really such a thing as Heaven? As Hell?”
“Whatever you believe there is, there is,” whispered back the priest. “I can’t tell you how exactly those two worlds exist, I’m only certain of the fact that they do. I believe they do.” Edi simply nodded.
“I heard my grandmother,” said Edi. “Out there. In the woods. She said my name. Just like your stories, I heard my name from someone who was dead. I’m meant to die here,” and his voice caught on the last word and Edi broke down. The priest could do nothing, only blink quickly to keep his tears from falling and put his hand on Edi’s shoulder.
“You will be alright, Edi. Trust me.” And he squeezed his shoulder.
As he had promised himself he would do, the priest took out a small piece of paper from his pocket and a pen.
“Do you want me to write or do you want to do it yourself?”
“You write, I’ll tell you what to put in there,” responded Edi.
He began to quickly write down Edi’s words as he spoke them. In this task, he found a purpose he thought he had lost when he first arrived at the camp. It was minor and yet it was what he’d expect of a priest; a final sense of comfort to a man in his final moments. He was going to miss Edi and their nightly talks. Sometimes the priest couldn’t help but wonder if he could’ve prevented him from this fate, but he knew well the stubbornness of man, of that inescapable sin—pride.
Dear mama, baba…the letter started and continued on to the backside of the page. When they had finished, Edi took a breath and put his head back against the wall. The priest folded the paper and placed it carefully in his pocket. He knew he only had a few more minutes before someone was going to get him.
“So,” said the priest. “Tell me about your favorite Jack London story.”
Nikoletta Gjoni is a fiction and creative nonfiction writer living outside of Washington, DC. She currently has a collection of linked short stories out on submission about people living in Communist Albania, spanning the 1970s through to the present day. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Kindling Volume III, Cleaver Magazine, Riggwelter Press, FIVE:2:ONE, and elsewhere. Her first published story was nominated for the 2018 PEN/Robert J. Dau prize. You can follow her on Twitter @NikiGjoni and read more of her work at www.ngjoni.com.
Several years ago, unable to rent an apartment, I sublet one in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I didn’t bring much, --- some clothes, random papers, German tea, flax oil, hair conditioner I’d been rationing for seven years.
The sublet included a cat -- black and white, long-haired and over-sized -- basically, a stuffed skunk. She had a small splotch of permanent blood in her left eye that made her look emotionally injured. Her name began with “the,” like a title. I was subletting from a novelist, and so I understood the titular nature of the cat’s name. The introductory article was followed by a popular and sophisticated female name, which made her fit right into the surrounding baby infinity.
I’ll call her The Sophie, as she is still alive, and I don’t want to get sued for infringement. I trust the novelist is quite capable of this, as her English is fluent -- her paw-written English, that is. A lengthy note was posted on the kitchen wall citing the duties the care-provider must perform in order to earn his or her stay, and satisfy The Sophie’s needs. The note concluded with the lengths one was to go to if something dire were to happen to The Sophie while her mommy was away.
The Sophie didn’t possess feline aloofness, independence, nonchalance. She’d follow me around the apartment, waiting for me to perch somewhere---which she heard as the tolling bell to begin her love ritual. She’d start on my lap, sinking her claws into my sweater and pulling her way, rung by rung, up to the summit -- my neck. She’d wrap her front paws around it and burrow her head into its side, purring. The Sophie’s purr reminded me of the sonic percolation of my father’s foot pressing the gas pedal into the car floor, waiting patiently to take me to church. He was pre-punctual, which I, in those days, interpreted as his wanting to beat God.
As soon as The Sophie settled, she’d begin licking my face, sticking her tongue in my ear canal. Her tongue was not smooth. This gesture brought me uncomfortably back to childhood, when I’d rub my nose and cheeks with sandpaper, in efforts to erase my freckles. I’d carried this desire with me into adulthood, morphing it into a love of sloughing dead skin. I had left my (now extraneous) exfoliant in my former apartment. Exfoliant wasn’t the first thing I lacked.
The temporary apartment didn’t have any nice mugs, which stunted my coffee habit. Some were the wrong size, they were all the wrong shape, no awakening colors. This depressed me. How was I to perform my energizing morning ritual without lamenting the mug’s sick shape? I went for a walk to cool off. On my way up the Slope I saw a box on the sidewalk with its cardboard tongue sticking out: FREE STUFF. I stopped and looked inside: two mugs of a peppered mustard color, with bellies of constrained voluptuous roundness peered up at me. They had the remote and casual expression of a dog in the pound, the kind who knows that if he looks at you with too much want, you’ll pass him over. I looked around. In the distance I saw a figure in an over-puffed coat hiking up the hill. I bent over and took the mugs -- since the figure was too far away to watch the poor, pitiful person take free stuff, I lacked embarrassment.
There were also books in the box: “How to Raise a Smarter Child, The Baby Whisperer”; there was a dinosaur-looking Mr. Coffee machine, cords and plugs and computer mice. But I didn’t pay attention to the other stuff. I couldn’t believe my luck.
A couple mornings later I found myself on my way to a coffee shop. There was one uphill, one down, one north, one south. (I’m referring merely to the ones at spitting distance). Neighborhood-wise I was on vacation. Work-wise, I was not. I decided on the uphill one, as it was nearest the bank where I’d have to stop pre-coffee to decrease my balance. Why are you spending money on coffee when you have some at “home”? You have likeable mugs! You pig! Why waste two bucks? I withered my shoulders against the wind, made sure I didn’t step on the cracks. There’s where I saw something stuck and papery, scraping along its folded creases. Recognition (my eureka (not the best one yet)) must have flashed across my eyes in the same instant they met a man’s walking towards me. I dropped to my knees and collected the dollars (two), ironing them friskily into my pocket. The man smiled wide. He seemed happy for me. Either that or he was laughing at me.
I’ve earned my coffee shop coffee! It’s an omen! Good things are going to happen to me! My smile was splitting my mouth. You’ll probably head off to a coffee shop every morning thinking you’re going to find money! You’ll wind up in debtor’s prison! Prison without coffee! Prison with Mr. Coffee! You’ll spend money looking for money! I brushed my pocket with my palm, turned around and crept back to the sublet, where I made my already-paid-for coffee, in my found mug.
The precision of my first two finds, the answer to my specific desires, began to form a strange feeling in my mind. I couldn’t believe the wealth and steady up-grading of the Slopians. I wanted -- through juxtaposition, through osmosis -- to ingest the neighborhood that was not mine. I wanted to experience Park Slopianism’s side-effects through affect and fakery. I wanted to worm my way in, eating its dirt. I certainly couldn’t enter straight-forwardly, by handing over a large, penta-digitus check.
I remembered a friend whose book became a best-seller telling me that this had come to pass through visualization --- how he pictured his book on the store shelves between Barbara Kingsolver and Rudyard Kipling. And so I’d leave each morning on my way to work picturing what I needed, what I couldn’t afford to buy, or what I no longer understood why I should buy.
I’d never owned a blender, but loved mushy food, and so I pictured one whirring. The next day I found one in its manufacturer’s box on top of a trashcan alongside some wet pillows and desiccating wreaths. I lugged it home. I visualized an elderly hand-mixer for mashing the potatoes I wanted to mash once a year. A few days later I found a prehistoric one, with white ceramic bowls attached. I thought in the near future I’d need a chair (I pictured a lonely corner in my unforeseeable apartment). I found three -- one whose wooden back formed the shape of a child splitting his legs and lifting the world with his hands. I found a wicker laundry basket (I hadn’t pictured that, but it was too cylindrical for me to pass up). I found a crate to hold my merciless papers; a lamp with a green translucent face; a series of wooden frames with the declension as Russian nesting dolls; a cork board; a full-length mirror; a table; a pressure-cooker; countless printers that looked brand new (which I soon stopped carting home, as I came to terms with the fact that I didn’t need more than one, and was overwhelmed by their size and plastic ugliness).
I also began to acquire a wardrobe. The brownstones of Park Slope are gated, with spikes pointing to the sky. People hook their unwanted, ill-fitting, often brand-new clothes on them. I found a pair of dark jeans with wide ankles and a metallic British flag attached to its back pocket, an antique summer dress in sky and sea pastels, a soft pair of musk-green tights. I found a pair of mossy suede boots, a blue corduroy mini skirt, a sweater with roses, a black summer dress with vertical lines that shimmered as though black were an assortment of colors that complimented each other. I found a pair of jeans with foot-long cuffs and fuzzy back pockets. I couldn’t tell if they were designer or home made. At first I liked their kookiness, but after a while, worried that I looked like a middle-aged hare. I found a pair of Keen shoes. I didn’t know these were expensive and wanted by the middle-aged Park Slopians. But due to the jealous disbelieving looks that fell straight to my shoes when I wore them, I soon Googled and discovered they cost about 100 bucks. I feared these shoes would ruin an economically- challenged person like me, as they were so comfortable, how could I return to my twelve dollar warehouse sneakers? But I also wondered if when women stared at my clothes, it was because they recognized their discarded junk, finding me pathetic.
I found paintings -- some good, some horrible. It didn’t matter; I dragged them all back to the sublet, decorating in my mind the home I could not find. It saddened me that people threw out their paintings. I felt that by carting their work home I was saving parts of their forgotten souls. I found record albums that felt like parts of mine.
I was overwhelmed by the number of books I found on the street, as well as the number of them that lined the inside skin of the sublet (not to mention the number of framed literary advertisements and paintings that featured female breasts). At first the endless choice seemed wonderful, but soon my nettled inability to decide what to read felt much like trying to select olive oil from Olive Row at Whole Foods.
The Sophie’s mommy collected the work of contemporary writers -- Jonathan Safron Foer’s complete collection, for example, Roberto Bolano’s entire opus. I found myself retracting into a former self, wanting to re-read books from my past, books that were not there -- V. S. Naipaul’s “A House for Mr. Biswas,” for instance. Naipaul was too old for The Sophie’s mommy’s competitive assortment -- it would be like finding Velveeta inside the city of artisanal cheese. So I sat on the floor and pictured the book, visualizing what my mind had sculpted as Biswas‘ house: dry and derelict expanse of land, cheap house-building ingredients, his small unhappy wife, sarongs wrapped around dark-skinned women with tikkas between their brows.
The next day I found Naipaul’s “Half a Life.” How close, I thought. At first this seemed like a good sign, but I didn’t like “Half a Life”. I didn’t know if I should trust my dislike of the book, or if this was a sign that I could no longer accept anything besides exactly what I wanted. I recited some Biswas aloud in hopes of bringing it closer. The next day I found “Frankenstein”.
I pictured Ondaatje’s “The English Patient” because recently a friend had argued that my dislike of it was wrong. So I wanted to give it another try. I visualized it. I pictured the words of the title in a nice font with the author’s name hovering close. The next day I found Ondaatje’s “Anil’s Ghost”. I pictured “A Hundred Years of Solitude,” and found “Chronicle of a Death Foretold”. I couldn’t tell if I was refining my powers, or if they were breaking free.
At some point in my book-haze my sublet expired and I under-rented again in another Brooklyn neighborhood, followed by several others, landing about a year later in a studio for which my partner co-signed the lease. It was in Park Slope, and had a way-below-average rent for reasons that were not explained, but became evident as time moved on. I had all but forgotten the way things had been in this hood -- what I’d expected to find -- though I’d lugged all my finds from sublet to sublet, furnishing my new home.
Initially my Park Slope rental life was the same as my subletted one: I found a green plate that wasn’t round or square -- with gold Baroqueness and steppe depressions, a pink mug with a cat’s face hiding inside its design, a dark dresser whose age made light decoration on its surface, a ceramic planter, a wooden frame with carved wooden flowers inside, a straw lampshade, a tea set, a map of the world, a water-proof pair of calf-length boots.
I began to picture the object I actually needed -- the appliance I hated to use but had to, the cleaning machine I spent each Saturday of my youth paralyzed in front of, trying unsuccessfully to startle myself into un-comatization: a vacuum. About six months went by -- my apartment freeloading on hair follicles and dust bunnies. Then one morning I got a call from a friend informing me that he had just seen a vacuum on a street close to my apartment. I ran out. It was there: a friendly red upright Dirt Devil. I pushed it home, receiving dirty looks from everyone who passed me by. Were they annoyed at someone collecting things off the street? Or was it the irritating scrape of the vacuum’s wheels against the sidewalk?
I plugged it in. It revved. I felt I’d entered the final frontier. But soon I found myself criticizing the vacuum: It had no hand-held nozzle. It was clearly made for a much larger apartment, and one with lots of rugs! It had a female voice, which reminded me of my youthful paralysis. It was red!
A few weeks later I found a better fit, receiving the same dirty looks as I scraped it home. In the weeks to come, my finds switched to the vegetal: a pear with brown scars sitting on top of a mailbox. I rubbed it clean and palmed it home; an isolate brussel sprout that I put in my pocket and rested on the window sill. And one rainy day a tiny white brain swam past along the gutter. I watched it go. I didn’t take it home.
Looking back on the course of my finds, it seems to me now that it was something like beginner’s luck; that plus the investigation of a newly-found neighborhood. How enamored I was with brownstones and expressive trees -- things that I took for granted after living in the studio for two years. At the start I walked along intricate and spontaneous pathways; then up and down the same street every day -- that’s what I think launched me out of finding so much stuff.
When I first moved in I lived Off the Slope; a little while later, I lived On it. Now I live in a Brooklyn borough in which my finds are trash and dog pooh.
Priscilla Becker: I write across 3 genres : fiction, non-fiction, & poetry, & all have been published, though not entirely. My first book won the Paris Review Book Prize, & my 2nd came out through a house that ain't suitable for me : Four Way Books. i've got 3 non-fiction books about to emerge : Ugly Odyssey, Cut of Everything, & 80 Punished Pages. Currently, the most appropriate publishers, based on the meanings of their names, distributed me : Faultline & Oddball; aswell, i agree with the adjective in a recent writing critique : "She's a tormented genius".