A train cuts across flat, barren plains. It must climb the continental plateau of the Balkan Peninsula, mountains and gullies of mud and snow. Inside the carriage is a balmy surfeit of heat.
The train reaches a barbed-wire border.
The heat goes off and stays off.
People empty the passages. Some remain — smugglers, moneychangers, traders, perhaps some prostitutes, certainly a group of Gypsies. Immigration and customs check Toby Pleasure’s documents and bag.
The last fellow cobbles together a salutation.
“Make a pleasant journey!”
The train sits for hours. The cold is distinctly emanating from the floor. Bored, he bums a cigarette and empties the tobacco onto a page; he restuffs the tube with kif and leans out the window to smoke. Later in the corridor he talks in sign language with a Gypsy about Toronto. Toby declines the carpet.
Raki is exchanged for rakija.
A key eye notes the possible location of his bag.
The carriage lurches forward. It nudges over a no-man’s-land, mined and patrolled.
Armed men are waiting for the train among the shit and cigarettes frozen around the tracks on the other side of the border. Thick rows of civilians huddle on the platform in the near distance.
A police officer confiscates Toby’s passport.
A little worrying, but he dare not ask why.
No hurry. None of the freight trains move. The people, hardly.
A customs inspector unpacks his bag for him: spices, cassettes, an envelope bursting with green powder.
“Henna. For my sister,” Toby says with assurance.
The inspector shrugs at the kif. He kneads the well-traveled underwear and pauses in his toiletry kit. He requisitions a tangerine before moving down the carriage.
A conscript sets up a ladder and checks the trapdoors above the corridors; another lifts up each seat.
Then comes the signal, neither a rattle of gunplay nor a whistle, but a trumpet blown by a member of the railroad staff.
The train approaches the station. Already luggage and bodies are sprinting to the carriage and entering through the windows. People scrap in the corridor, pile into the compartments.
Legs dangle from the luggage racks. Legs screw into the wall. Legs knit together. Legs block the way.
Grim, motley faces share black tobacco cigarettes. They type into calculators and hold wads of worthless dinar. They cut up curtains for their shoes. They sniff at rinds of cheese and tangerine, the remains of his lunch.
Someone intonates fearfully, “Something for something.”
Big blue police jostle the mob, check identities.
The police insist Toby get off the train.
He negotiates the legs.
Soldiers patrol on the platforms.
People who will not fit on the train huddle with their baggage on the frozen cement.
A bewildered group of Kenyans and Senegalese stand in the cold office. An official studies his passport behind the desk smothered in ash, dandruff and wet splotches of snow.
After more manhandling, a record of his entry and a fee, his passport receives a vivid blue Cyrillic visa. He may go.
The official ignores the Africans.
Other people appear in the office, without the right stamp or document.
Toby’s compartment is cramped with twelve others.
This is useless, he thinks.
He imagines a neat piece of corruption. He squeezes through the corridors, tows his bag, plucks through the tattered limbs.
“Eh! Fuck your mother!”
He pushes on, past mustaches, scarves, paunches, galoshes.
“I shit on your dead relatives!”
Toby finds the couchette conductor stowed away in his quarters, a hamster drinking tea. He pays what the hamster asks, a few dollars of cheese for a space. The corridor is crowded but less so. The hamster knocks on one particular door and he’s admitted.
He warily exchanges a greeting with the traveler inside. He watches the cold.
The mob jumps and rustles. The people crush cigarettes into the walls, take slugs of plum brandy and wipe their noses with their money. They inveigh: mothers, God, neighbors, enemies, the railway, leaders; everyone’s a fair target. Some drunkards climb out and push, but the train is frozen to the tracks. The soldiers dissuade them.
Some time the train chugs forward into brown hills to a roar of disproval. They surely are going somewhere worse. Some stops bring men with bandages or crutches. Horror and despair glaze everyone’s eyes. No one gets off.
The latch is secure. The curtains are drawn tight. Toby and the traveler guiltily stretch out their feet and stare at gray, cold rock, motionless cascades.
The train makes ineluctable progress. Troops, tanks and artillery move on a road. They slip over bridges of rusty pig iron. Communist stars are riveted into the trusses. Wood and coal smoke shroud the passing valleys. Villages are shrouded in icy fog. A highway has no traffic except for Mercedes-Benzes. Orchards of plum pose on the hills.
They eke onward. Shanties of mud and cardboard: thin children, thin horses, thin men. Then brown streets of oil and grime. Forlorn windy figures queue for transport. Slabs of apartments, black. Two rivers appear not to move at all. A fortress. Church domes. Belgrade, blacked out with doom, held by ghouls.
The train halts in the brown sulfurous station.
People are replaced by even more people. Heated shouts in the hall precede a violent attack on the door.
The other traveler huddles next to the window.
People take the seats, floor and luggage rack. More joust in the corridor. Vendors sell gum, bullets, half-frozen beer and clocks, pushing aside the people, deflated by inflation, sanctions and shortages. Toby hands out a few cigarettes to the passengers. It’s time to smoke.
There is no light and no heat. Anywhere. Inside or out. Electricity is a luxury. So is information. No one knows where or when.
He holds a tangerine to keep warm. It’s excruciatingly cold. The wind howls in the compartment, no better than a cardboard shack. At dawn, the train rolls from the dark city, thudding over the two dirty frozen rivers. The locomotive is showered with sparks from the electric lines.
Flashes: pylons, a carcass of car, brush, a child dancing on a roof, four piglets. The snow phosphoresces as if it could be the sea.
The traveler takes on a greenish hue as the cigarettes, schnapps and pig’s fat of hospitality conspire in the compartment. The sty of toilet isn’t available.
The passengers pull back from their new friends.
His cheeks inflate with the meal and it empties between everyone’s legs.
“Thanks, buddy,” Toby says.
The compartment partially empties and once more they stretch their legs over the rapidly freezing mess.
A few missiles rain down on the capital. Not just anywhere but in the main square. They skitter across the harlequin paving stones into the pedestal of an old bronze revolutionary. The real fighting is close, but now bombs have fallen in the capital. People once confident that they could go about in security now go in uncertainty.
The sky isn’t to be trusted.
Maybe the front is no longer in their country’s favor.
A blitzkrieg can change that, but the government must negotiate for deeper credit and new weapons first.
For now, the war is a nasty case of tit for tat.
Toby’s position in a big wicker chair under a chestnut tree allows him to catch the last rays of the setting sun. A piano in a music academy echoes over the terra cotta roofs. He feels grand at the café.
Citizens promenade in the cool evening. The supply lines are alive in Zagreb. Few choices exist: join the ruling war party and profiteer. Resistance is futile: goods are expensive, bombs fall. It’s a war arrangement.
Toby pays when the coffee’s cold. He leaves to retrieve his bag from consignment at the terminal, rows of orange, plastic seats filled with people. On the way he admires a few sexily depressed women.
The bus station is an outpost of the dispossessed.
Slippers, skirts and scarves. Everyone shares the same deep wrinkles of outdoor physical labor callused with shell-shocked expressions of indifference. Plaid polyester bags, the shells of seeds and skins of sausages are strewn among them. Police and troops harass the people fearful of making eye contact. No mercy.
Toby manages the last seat on the bus to Dalmatia. Hs bag wedges between his legs. He spots another foreign face in the back. It’s optimistic, perhaps like his.
Enlisted men fill the remaining space. The bus sways onto the road; everyone negotiates for a claim. A soldier’s belt of grenades and service revolver dangle within easy reach.
At the frontline are the detours and inconveniences of moving territory. The road bristles with antitank defenses. Streets are wrapped in sandbags. Tiles and bricks litter the area. The soldiers disembark, pool together their kuna, organize a case of beer.
Soon the soldiers burp; they aren’t fighting on this contested frontline. That’s to celebrate. The bus drives under the moon, headlights off. The bus is too good a target. Certainly, no one reads. Everyone talks or sleeps; using an adjoining passenger for a pillow is acceptable.
Convoys of munitions and relief clog the passes in the mountains; they sweep along the edges. The bus plunges past convoys, tucking between the trucks when necessary. The bus barrels onward, passes the switchbacking trucks.
The smell of the sea seeps through the windows. It’s heavy and grim, brewing, unfriendly. The bus skids along the abyss.
Sometime in the night, a halt. Buses and trucks are positioned along a sea wall. Launches rock in the harbor. Two cafés provide coffee, cola, beer, liquor, nuts.
Something short is best, because this is war.
The TV plays battle and atrocity highlights.
Toby cagily engages the other foreigner standing at the bar.
The foreigner drawls. “Bargain island fun is what I’m looking for.”
Toby cools. “You’re a bit too early for that.”
Everyone files back on. Somehow he dozes.
The black coast road reduces to a pontoon bridge guarded by troops. The fighting has touched the lagoon; the remains of the predecessor are visible, won back. Squads of soldiers are on each side, protected by sandbags and wire, busy securing the area.
Houses have been selectively bulldozed, dynamited or mortared. They are booby-trapped too, in case anyone would come back.
Or the day before yesterday.
They have red and white guts of plaster and brick like spiders. Graffiti acknowledges whoever vanquished the ground. Shrapnel is punched into the road. Burned cars. Fires burn still. Skids of blood lead into the scrub. The bodies, cleared away. Each side gathers a strange harvest of ordnance and skeletons.
Entranced and sickened, he’s that close to events. The bus window separates him from combat.
The purple mountains are intaglioed with scrub. Grapes smother a white house. A donkey is tethered to a well.
Battle refuse covers the road. Ruins of cars and tractors. Even a tank. At some point the soldiers melt into the moist morning that smells like sea and wheat.
Long harrowing turns end the ride at Split. De-mobbed trains lie on the adjoining railway, the network in smithereens in the interior. That’s why Toby took the bus.
The stone-paved road leads to a café serving coffee and pastries.
The sun slides above the mountains, then the sea, flies overhead.
Red-faced Western truck drivers bark around the docks. They confer about the delivery of aid, the corn, batteries and clothes.
What’s going on?
Intelligence and hearsay. Rumors and unconfirmed reports.
Palms line the promenade. Launches and yachts move on the water. Mullet motor after harbor waste. Refugees ply the cafés occupied by subdued customers. Pensioners bask in the sun.
He turns into the jumble of colonnades, arcades and facades hewn together. The shade is greasy with the odor of doughnuts. Clippers buzz in a barbershop and a radio fades into the calls of fishmongers. Hercules balances on a huge bronze toe bestowed with wishes. A Gypsy woman chants and stares at her puffy slippers. The stone tablets : salt, sugar, soil, grape.
A man grasps a pair of stinky cheeses in shovel-like hands. They cost a trifle.
The sea sparkles in the cove of stones.
He changes under a juniper. He hobbles into the water, cool as juniper. His body tentacles behind him. He cannot see the dark bottom, but the white city and grim mountains appear. He undulates back to the shallows. He spots the fellow from the bus.
He hails Toby, waving back among the sea urchins.
“Stew,” he says.
Toby isn’t telling. He could be Lauren or Steve or Cheri or Robert.
“What a bus ride, huh?” he says sheepishly as Toby towels off.
Everything is excellent, fabulous, according to Stew, shaped like a patrician pear.
The oldsters shuffle into the beryl water. The sun saws across the sky. Toby stakes out some shade. That much is normal.
A group of kids gather.
Toby’s keen stare is rewarded. The kids move awkwardly; they’ve forgotten what tourists look like. He starts to smile as he smokes the straight stone pipe filled with a handful of grass tasting like the sun. Soon Toby stretches his organs and swims again.
Stew hovers, summons the courage.
“Want to have a drink at my hotel?”
Stew scrambles along the rocks lead to town: truckers, refugees, locals. The convoy hasn’t started. Alcohol and smack junkies circulate against the walls.
Mostly press and agency types moon over Belvedere’s gold bar — vinyl, circles, brass.
The retro decor and gin and tonics set Stew off. He hugs Toby’s waist, snogs his ear.
Toby is his boy moment.
It’s all rather fun and no one minds.
Stew breathes, “Fabulous,” each time Toby squirms away to sip a drink. He sees where this is going.
“Tease,” drawls Stew, but not before ramming his fingers down Toby’s crack and withdrawing a whiff.
“Don’t you want to hop with me?”
Two of his fingers are fused together.
The palms darken the stones. He savors the quietude.
At the cove more kids are recreating Rock around a fire. A girl crashes on the warm shingles at the perimeter. The vaguely fluorescent waves fold in the sea.
Toby curls into the flat round stones, his body like a bus cradled by the night.
At the intense cold before dawn, he’s startled.
The girl lies next to him.
“Loneliness is so sexy,” she says.
They burn on one side, freeze on the other.
Outboards putter out to sea. Ferry exhaust overwhelms the harbor. Debris dries and the beach warms. Cicadas loop in the trees. White islands glimmer in the haze. The kids are piled under a juniper, asleep.
Toby takes an orange and crashes back in the stones with the girl. He removes his clothes, rubs the orange peel and grains of sand. He slips into the sea and makes a pleasant trip.
Stew prowls the beach. He spreads his towel, changes into his latex briefs and cap. He adjusts his goggles. Stew strokes out into the cove.
Toby shivers in the crystal sea; flakes of diatoms, zones of warm and cold, crisp salt.
Stew walruses into Toby’s intensely private space.
“You haven’t got a chance,” he says. Stew’s angry.
Their bodies tangle.
Stew’s lanky arms dunk Toby under. He’s a drowning buoy until he inflicts a large scratch on Stew’s leg. Sounds compress in his face. He surfaces in a chaos of snot and sea, coughing a lungful.
“Little bitch! I wish you’d disappear!” Stew shouts and kicks.
Toby heaves slime.
“See that boat?”
He treads water and points to a ferry in the harbor.
“I’m leaving on that boat.”
Toby retches. He’s exasperated and flunks back to shore.
Stew’s thermos of near-frozen spirits revives him. Toby drinks, tussles with the stones. The oldsters relish their parasols, chairs, tables and cards.
“Excellent! Courtesy of the none other than the Belvedere bar.” Stew drawls, the fight over. He dries off in his vapid way, before launching into a whole itinerary of island hopping.
There’s an island. Long like a needle. Follow the harbors, coves and passages. Paths weave through the scrub, made by goats, donkeys, men. Gray stone walls interstice the hills. An oblique tongue of rock reaches into sea. The rock is set with a table. A choice of fish from the sea and tart wine from the vineyards.
It’s iron that he sips, cordial with grouper and squid.
Toby doesn’t tell Stew about the best place for malaise.
Stew fidgets and fusses. Blood trickles down his ankle.
He tunes out the request to rub sun-block into Stew’s pear-like back.
“You’re a right bitch.”
The torpor should silence him but Stew’s indestructible. His meat isn’t soft. Stew marches up and down the beach in his clear plastic sandals. He pursues push-ups and assorted tummy tougheners, then laps.
Later, he agrees to play tennis with driftwood and rocks.
The summer is chaste or fast, kisses on the patio and fights on the rocks, kilos of mussels and red gemiste. The summer has no morale for the sun varnished with war. It’s just over in the next bay where homes need to be designated friend or foe.
Stew defers, the next tactic. “I’m sorry I dunked you, but I was angry.”
Toby is noncommittal, lets it slow-cook.
“Would you accept an invitation to lunch?”
Stew wants to splash his money on a scorpion fish along the palm-fringed harbor.
“The locals are almost invisible,” says Stew. “Like Czechs.”
He masticates the fish. The bones poke from Stewart’s mouth. He regales an adjoining table of poltroons. He invites himself to the humanitarians’ table, sensing a new conquest.
Toby wanders away,
Let him besot a confused aid boy en suite.
Marco Polo swings from the harbor. Shadow falls on the mountains and golden city. The ferry reverses engines, turns to the harbor mouth.
Gulls clip at the sky.
The boat scores a white wake. Marco noses between the shoals and islands.
No seats are available. Refugees occupy them all. They are divided according to sex, clan and town. Mercy is an hour’s warning that they will come. They wear everything they’ve got.
Televisions on the two main decks rerun footage of infantry breaking a siege. Soldiers storm an enclave, gather and shoot people. The troops wear counterfeit sport brands. Everyone watches: surely, victory.
The sea squalls in the night. The boat punches onward.
In the dining room Marco’s captain sits with his marine cohorts. An intricate wood mosaic of Scandinavia is embedded in the wall. People dejectedly smoke cigarettes and drink espresso for hours at a flashy bar decorated with vanity bulbs. The TVs play more combat footage. It’s upsetting.
Marco docks at an odd pier of rock breached by a single blue lighthouse.
Sea spray reaches the decks. Waves of vapor surround the Marco Polo. The boat gyrates on the rough sea. A storm door often swings open. Passengers choke and open their coats, with a wish for Marco’s journey to end. Green people heave an opaque version of misery into the tossing sea.
At first light the sea has calmed.
Marco regains its normal smoke-saturated ambiance. The coffee machines hiss espresso and mélange. Blue-vested waiters coin what they can.
Toby moves from his spot under a table. He replaces the lightbulbs unscrewed in the night.
Kids hatch from supine figures, yawn in a bedazzled manner at the worthy surface of the sun.
Marco almost brushes the shores of the many islands. The dawn is infused with rosemary and oregano. The green mountains of the mainland relieve the expanse of sky and sea. A smelter spews like a burning bone. A chain of steamers is anchored offshore. White blocks are buried in the mountain’s cleft.
The sea smoothes when the ship bends into the bay. The port city is wrapped around it. Small craft bob in the marinas. Birds cry over the sun. Marco Polo maneuvers with her throbbing engines; miniscule men fasten Marco to the dock.
The refugees scatter into the parking lot, the market, the train and bus depots, any haven.
Along the waterfront he looks into a bar. The patrons sit in a stainless steel and red vinyl color scheme. Toby slugs back an espresso, then a beer.
People roughly circulate past the bar to the long pedestrian mall. They need solace — bottle, needle, fruit machine, lotto, cigarettes.
A tiny brown kid embraces an accordion. Old men wear yokes of artichoke and fava. The gauche set mingles over gelato and pancakes. Merchants tend their gold leather. Everyone is waiting for war to go away.
He follows a tranquil trail of color and scent. A rookery flutters with laundry. Tamarind, orange and pomegranate poke over walls.
Toby identifies a suitably unrocky, flat space in the canyon.
He reclines there, except for a periodic and unsettling cry. The screeching of metal pierces the gentle hubbub of the port.
It’s the keening of pigs, little pink bullets of flesh manhandled by men in white coats down in the abattoir tucked below. The pigs look almost like people. A pyramid of bone meal rises behind the abattoir.
A municipal bus cranks along the bay. The clunker stops at the peninsula’s socket. The small stone town is composed of stairways to the waterfront.
Cats. Two restaurants. Marina.
A few stout German families dine in the war zone. It’s milk talking.
Alarmed, they smile at the flasks of white wine and platters of fish between curt summonses. The waitress is overwhelmed by an overbite, pimples and oily hair.
A table of Scandinavian blondes tears at a lamb.
A walkway curls down the bay. People sunbathe on the sun-worn rock. Gates lead to the villas and hotels hidden among a riot of ferns and bamboo.
Hotel reception is behind four indoor palms.
About to inquire, Toby puzzles over the design. Peacock colors and peacock eyes. Peacock carpet, peacock upholstery. Peacock walls. Peacock tiles. Peacock clock.
Stew pants, stewing there among the peacocks.
Stew is agitating in reception and turns to receive him.
“For two, yes? You did say you were up the coast.”
Vomit on his shirt and shorts.
Stew whistles down the corridor. He turns the peacock key in the peacock lock. Peacock sheets and peacock shag.
Toby warns him with a horse pinch.
“You’ll do,” he responds.
Stewart cannot stop. He intimidates Toby with a vanity bag filled with falsies. He ooohs and aaahs over the lubricants.
Condensation drips down the windows.
Stew breezily pins Toby with his knees. He tapes his ankles and wrists together. He leers in his face, pops a pair of pills under his tongue. He clamps Toby’s nose and jaw shut. Toby struggles, hyperventilating.
Toby cannot not swallow.
Stew gleefully drums on his sternum and sings.
“Iron finger! Iron finger!”
His enormous melded finger is like a nail.
“Relax,” he says. “It’s a sin not to fulfill your destiny.”
The pills sizzle in Toby’s mouth and stomach.
Tucking his vanity bag under his muscles, Stew retires to the peacock bathroom.
Toby is faint, opaque. If he’s iron fingered, he’ll turn into a wet noodle.
A couple fights in the next room. It has taken years for them to reach this moment, when intimacy is hate. The yelling barges into his consciousness in waves.
Other couples’ voices also filter through the peacock bed, like a speaker.
A morose couple is amorous in stairways, empty lots, alleys, toilets. In the sea. Along a road. Between dunes. In the backseat of a bus. On stones. In the grass. On a train, a fire escape, a tree trunk, a balcony. On a bed, the peacock bed, the peacock bed that moves with the moment he wants to forget.
But it’s there, that horrible disgrace in the mirror and the Stewart’s litany of drawled text.
This should happen.
Is it feverishness or exaltedness or the sublime?
Toby feels terribly sick. Out comes the foam of pills, gradually oozing from the corner of his mouth.
Stew tapes his mouth shut.
Toby almost swallows his tongue.
Stew does not love him and uses him as his wont.
He drains his fusty jism into all the corners of the peacock suite. He launches brown, jelly condoms from the peacock balcony. He perforates his anus.
Stew merges strength and pain, innocence and pleasure, consent and guilt with the iron finger. His hungry mouth and vanity bag rattle with toys.
He’s a happy dog with his inert ball who he chews, tears and tosses.
Is he big on sucking cock?
How much can he take?
His body’s a sponge. His ambiguousness fluctuates and must accept or not.
He’s not in a camp. It’s not a rifle. Or a baton. Or a broken bottle. Or his neighbors’ fists. He’s not aborting the twins of his captor, carved from his guts. But it’s also violent.
Women laugh somewhere. Gulls shriek. The couple fights and fucks. Stew, indestructible, pleas for a new climax.
Despite his tongue and toys he cannot extract another drop from his shitty penis.
He administers a shiny scarab. It’s gritty and fills Toby’s mouth with tetanus-like queasiness.
Vomit explodes out Toby’s nose.
It blows off the tape, spreads over the peacock room.
Vomit is stronger than Stew’s desire.
“Bitch!” Stew shouts.
Toby purges all over him, purges what he has seen and heard and learned and it’s then that he explodes.
That’s when Stew stops. Disappointed, he flagellates himself in sexual fury.
Toby is out.
The dogs and pigs wake him.
The bay isn’t something that he would notice.
He sleeps under the day and night through the death cries of pigs and bark of dogs.
He’s dehydrated, wounded, almost dead.
He has no papers, no money, no bag but some clothes scattered around the scrub.
He finds a flat, warm bottle of soft drink.
A hundred questions and he’s void of answers, like he wants to be. He leaves the noise, must find the place.
Kids Are Sick
Mountains encircle the dark town. He smells like gasoline. He’s been helping the bus driver with the engine during their frequent breakdowns.
A bar, a church, a pharmacy, a parking lot: that’s all of downtown.
Toby slips in a jeton and calls the number of the camp. The manager agrees to fetch him. He’s missed the last ride up to the resort.
He drinks with the lumberjacks until a man and a woman in leisure suits greet him. They smoke cigarettes in rapid secession, kiss intermittently and turn up the stereo as the car goes up the curves. His ears pop in his throat.
The hotel has been turned into a summer camp. The director of the camp comes and meets him in the foyer. She escorts him to one room among a wing of kids, bunked in screaming fours. He’s given an entire room.
Nescafe and cigarettes are breakfast. The director agrees that he’s to teach the older kids for four hours each morning.
The only rules are no fucking and no fires.
The kids manage to disobey as clumsily as they can.
Almost all of them speak very well and have no interest in drills, exercises, writing or games. They’re product of elite schools and cable television. Summer isn’t for rigor. So they mumble about basketball, Kurt, sex, Metallica, drugs, the kind of stuff that can occupy kids’ minds for hours.
Toby attempts toughness, but this is camp, so his sense of justice favors the video games, TV, cigarettes.
One big boy, Marko, takes an interest in really improving his English. When he’s not strangling the rest of the puny class, he talks about kickboxing, discos, getting laid and weekend in Bosnia with his dad.
Toby probes the other kids about the war.
They feign innocence.
Have they been instructed to do so by their parents or the television?
The brats know nothing about it.
Except Marko. He’s big enough to tote a gun.
Lunch ends Toby’s responsibilities. The staff are dotted among the kids; they gorge on whatever the chef has concocted. He recommends the burnt pepper salad and a covert glass of wine.
After he combs the mountains, walks as far and fast as he can, far from the resort and cluster of hotels, far from the kids, past the ski runs now high with summer grass, nettle, bramble. Some alpine berries grow on the rim of mountains. Mushrooms dot the forests. The chef turns them into a nice stew.
Somewhere he can see and hear the sea. It’s where the sky meets the horizon, a thread of darker blue.
At night the hotel pizzeria doubles as a disco. The teeners and tots mingle together, excited by cheese.
The cabin-like bar is a lure for the staff, sore and thirsty from the kids.
The de-mobbed volleyball teacher regales everyone with his outfit’s exploits. He fertilizes the tale with information about money from Chicago and chances to leave.
The mantel is adorned with beaded slippers, cudgels, baskets.
Random parents appear in the hotel foyer. They bring new clothes and more pocket money. They greet the camp doctor and might take a wounded child home.
The camp doctor keeps busy thanks to Marko’s kickboxing with the campers and the very course of nature, a wan child, exhausted from cigarettes, drunkenness and shame.
Two other English teachers also work at the camp. The women are wary.
One is English, marooned for all the war. She makes martyr-like proclamations about the solidarity of suffering.
The second is wilder; a tick governs her search for Harleys and the men who ride them.
Her own rowdy kid is at the camp and she slaps him from time to time.
They’re both two nervous for drink, so Toby finds a companion in the camp doctor from Mali.
Her white teeth clink against the glass and they look at one another in the Naugahyde seats of the hotel bar.
One morning the class takes to the mountains.
Toby shows them a blackberry. He wants them to drink from the brook, to pick mushrooms in the timber.
They won’t have it. They need to wander. The kids stretch along the path to a big buttress of rock, a vantage point for all the peaks.
Monasteries and mosques intermingle in the valleys below. The feud is sluggish, accomplished over centuries, but grows in evolutionary spurts — graffiti, honchos, then platoons of mercenaries. Folk slaughter their animals, seek shelter. They lie low, watching the bran of war. It’s harrowing. Sad, malicious deeds.
The doctor smiles the little gems when they return — sunburned, tired, ready for lemonade from the camp chef.
A promiscuous idea jams Toby’s attempts to sleep. He dreams of the doctor.
The camp counselors take the lead in the afternoons: softball, volleyball, tennis.
The kids go mad and the counselors soon lose control. Kids jump from bunk to bunk. Kids drink liters of pop. Kids bathe in snails and frogs and mud. Kids wrestle, strangle, punch. Kids elect other kids to be their victims. They cannot follow any sporting rules.
Bats and rackets are weapons. The kids are violent with emotion; they run amok on chips and candy and coke, spitting and lighting fires, fighting, weeping and swearing, mooning, fingering, sucking. They are satiated momentarily by another kid’s membrane.
At another camp, boys play basketball in a skilled, brawny manner. Fat-bellied coaches bark through the drills. Deeper in the resort are more camps, more activities, more indoctrination. They’ll make a good team.
Marko introduces Toby to his stout, warlord father, who stays at the Hotel Grand.
He bristles. “It’s easier to kill friends than strangers.”
The warlord retrieves Marko.
The Grand Hotel’s pool and sauna are higher up in the resort.
It’s an attractive notion. No lakes in walking distance.
Marko’s dad is sweating in the sauna with Marko and two sexy campers. Other little macho men circulate around the pool.
Each night the staff and kids stroll through the dark resort. They exchange arms, ears. The moon is full.
The wild teacher screams repeatedly in the road, “They called my nation a Nazi nation! My nation is not a Nazi nation!”
She begins to confuse this mantra with the apocalypse, nuclear tests and aliens. She collapses and the kids cluster around her.
The other teacher prays.
Her seizure eases and she too kneels to pray as the stars streak above. No one knows who’s the corroborator.
The time comes for Toby and the campers to go. The kids clasp one another, hug and cry. They’re sorry to leave their summer paradise.
The mountain valley is verdant and humid. The rocks and walls of the canyons reverberate with the boisterous kids, their spirits restored by thoughts of their parents.
The sun beats down; the curves and bad suspension collaborate. The bus slithers home. The kids begin to vomit in a daisy chain of sick.
The bus fills with the scent, an amplitude of lies, an emetic breakfast.
Who floats belladonna in the cereal milk?
Who feeds the children Amenita pizza?
Who tastes the sweet spring of amoeba water?
Everyone looks distastefully at the vomit of reality in their laps. It’s chips, candy, salami and Coke.
Sniper and mortar and artillery positions are dug into a mountainside. Casings and debris litter the trenches. Below the deciduous canopy is a ribbon of destroyed city.
The bus teeters, moans down the mountain and stops at an intersection.
Everyone gets off.
From here, a blue bus stenciled with UN moves into the other quarters of Sarajevo.
People jabber among themselves as the blue bus moves along a cratered road flanked by shattered houses, trenches, the maze. Burned out tower blocks and other bombed buildings form the skyline. People walk the streets.
Toby finds the address in the center of town.
Brutus isn’t home.
He hunts for a phone along the main drag pocked with bullet and artillery holes. But there are no public phones. The handsets have been shot off the streets.
Toby walks back to Brutus’s flat.
Toby grazes one side of a park marked with graves. Opposite: anti-tank traps, police boxes and an embassy.
A chain tautens.
It detonates in one movement.
Toby isn’t fast.
Fangs and eyes tear at his being, his leg.
He pulls away too late: blood from two deep puncture wounds wells from the back of his thigh. It doesn’t hurt yet.
The dog barks, rips at its chain, snarls.
Passersby aren’t too concerned.
Blood runs into his boot.
The police materialize from their booths. It’s their dog.
They mutter and shrug. They point at the dog, tock their temples. They smoke cigarettes and smile.
It’s not a head wound. The war’s over.
Toby hobbles on, clear of the dog, still barking and prowling, pleased by the afternoon’s coup de grace.
This time Toby insists on being let into the building.
Brutus’s upstairs neighbor sits him in the kitchen for lemonade and coffee. The leg is pulsing. The children look the blood dripping on the linoleum floor and disappear.
Keys jangle in the lock to Brutus’s flat. Brutus happily bumbles through Edith Piaf while he sorts his correspondence.
The neighbor walks down to tell him about the visitor.
The state of his leg is a good excuse to uncork a bottle of brandy.
“I’ll have to call my fixer and see if we can get that leg taken care of,” Brutus says between swills of the neat, strong stuff.
That’s obvious. The tips of his fingers dip into the two weeping holes. The poor plugs don’t stem the tide.
Brutus drives Toby to the hospital in his Landrover. The fixer and a doctor are waiting in emergency. It looks like a school.
The doctor tut-tuts over the wounds.
He remarks, “We must clean the punctures.”
He disinfects, shoots in a syringe of local. He pauses for the scalpel and gauges out the two holes. Two o-rings of flesh result.
The doctor scrubs away the copious blood.
A nurse wraps his leg in gauze and dispatches him out the door.
Toby minces to the Landrover.
Brutus offers to locate some sustenance.
They park next to a mosque. Men carefully soap their hands and feet.
In the restaurant Brutus embellishes about what he’s seen or missed. Brutus fabricates about half of what he says, laughing and thinking it’s great. He’s a journalist hunting the story in the mountains of misery.
Toby fades on the pain. His leg wins tonight.
Wet wounds stencil the sheet.
The next day Brutus leaves to savor the privileges to which his press card entitles him.
Toby calls a contact number; it’s a fruitful conversation.
He later limps to a meeting point with Dada.
She’s formal but also quite pleased that Toby has called. They never have communicated with more than their eyes before this morning. They do not shake or kiss on the cheeks.
She stands with her arms crossed. Her mouth is opulent. Her eyes flicker with cool intelligence. She is demure but bold. Dada looks at him as if he will perform.
Toby doesn’t divulge the story about the dog. He smiles at the irony. For six months there has been peace. Surely, he’s been warned for being too curious.
She knows about the dog.
Then she says, “I walk in war and don’t run from bullets.”
How can he follow that up?
They explore whatever miserable possibilities remain in the leftovers of Sarajevo, muster a cynical companionship.
She mocks him anyway, so he plays her sarcastic game.
“What does she want?” he wonders.
They shuttle from venue to venue.
They nervously hold hands at a basement bar late in the night, the last stop in a diet of international humanitarians and locals who weren’t annihilated. Photographs of a few rock-n-rollers, artists and celebrities who came to the city during the war are nailed to the walls.
“I hate it,” Dada says. Her verdict is the night’s conclusion.
Toby agonizingly limps with her to her door and leaves to convalesce. They don’t kiss but expect it.
One afternoon Toby rides with Brutus in the Landrover. He jaws on about the morning press conference and whatever scoop he’s onto. They tour the fronts and key points of the siege.
The destruction is on a scale one cannot comprehend. Everything has been shredded by bullets and shells. Scraps are left. But laundry flies among it, proof that life goes on. Multiple burned out, bombed out shells of buildings cast their ragged shadows over what’s left of the valley.
Brutus drives through a long obstacle-laced tunnel to the pass. The Landrover follows a stone-strewn river. UN patrols are posted along the road. Past the unrecognized border halfway up the valley, there are none.
They approach a town of cabins and mud. They stop at the Hotel Panorama. It’s a stronghold of some sort. Brutus thinks he might corner the strongman or chief.
They retire to the Panorama’s café to think. Burly men in polyester shells and sneakers as well as an assortment of armed militants take up most of the place; they slowly stir the sugar into their coffees at the granite bar.
Brutus verbally brainstorms about possibilities for the story and his career as correspondent.
“Talk a little quieter or change the topic, Brutus,” he asks.
Brutus excitedly fidgets, then demands they go somewhere else, a factory on the edge of the tatty town.
Black-uniformed guards block entry to the factory premises. Rows of Mercedes shine behind concertina wire. Military vehicles are distributed among the cars. Brutus ingratiates and cajoles but the guards look at their guns: it’s not really possible for an exclusive with the warlord.
On the way back Brutus tries to recover lost ground. He replays an adventure, but his deeds amalgamate into the white noise of vanity.
The murk of the tunnel swallows the car again.
Toby feels relief, especially once he has pushed Brutus onto his journalist pals at some grotesque watering hole.
Dada is vaguely pleased to see him.
Toby chooses kebabs off a grill, slurps lemonade and talks with her, cutely fussing with her baklava.
“It’s not the real thing,” she says.
His leg is sore, swollen and bleeding again. He duplicitously smiles.
“It’s pretty boring here, huh?”
She posits that it’s all changed since the war.
“Everyone’s gone, dead or left,” she says.
She makes an impressive spiel. And she agrees to more boozing. The alcohol encourages Toby to tell her things about himself, not part of the ploy. Dada is displeased when he veers into praising her attributes. But he performs to her expectations. Dada’s clearly unkeen; she won’t give it up.
Unfairly, he harangues her.
“You’re a 35-year-old virgin.”
She chooses a categorical reply.
“They call me the fortress. My friends call me the fortress because of what I do to guys.”
She smokes two drags and then dirtily kicks him under the table.
He howls at this treatment and clenches his fist in such a way that she flinches. The alarm in her eyes could be progress.
Toby tests her with an invitation to go to bed, to which she promptly refuses.
She leaves him drunk in the bar, ruing his weak spot.
Not far from Brutus’s flat is a cemetery. The graves are recent, fresh. Signs are posted among them, warning of mines. Even the dead are strategic. Paranoia binds him to the pavement later that morning.
A Gypsy boy sings in falsetto on the windowless tram. Bombarded buildings. Passengers vanish into the labyrinth of carnage and memory, of things once whole.
Toby forages in the destruction. He drinks a beer at a bar in a fire-stained housing estate. It’s alienating.
A teenager randomly takes Toby to a homemade radio studio somewhere in the estate: an old mixing deck and synthesizer, racks of pirate tapes and CDs.
The transmitter pokes out the kitchen window. The teenager’s mother makes lemonade to the broadcast, uninterrupted during the war.
The kids run jingles for the videoteka and cosmetic salon downstairs between stretches of death metal, punk, folk and the odd call for mom’s cigarettes.
Toby sits on the sofa until they run out of things to say about music and the neighborhood.
The Gypsy boy sings falsetto on the slow, desultory tram. Doleful and sweet, it enlightens him somehow.
He contemplates the mortar craters splashed with red paint, the roses on the pavement downtown.
Toby sees the woman who likes him. She stands at her office window. Dada plays with the office’s mascot, a macaw.
She comes down and they walk the expensive bird.
Despite her pleas, he enters the Iranian Cultural Center. She hesitates for a moment and then comes too. Perhaps she wants to protect him.
Toby talks to the cleric among complete audio sets of the Koran and elaborate gold calligraphy. Kids play Muslim video games under pictures of the Ayatollah.
Dada easily embarrasses among such backward ideas as religion, and the parrot is clacking and chattering and swearing on her shoulder.
The cleric convinces him to buy a CD-rom of the Koran from the School of Islamic Computer Sciences and bids him goodbye, glad to be rid of the curious Nazarene.
The macaw vengefully poops on the displays, cracks open the audio cassettes, pulls out the magnetic tape.
Dada extracts the bird from the pandemonium. She hastily returns the mascot to the office. Insufficiently humiliated, she agrees to meet Toby again in the evening.
As she departs she says, “I would hate it anywhere. Nothing would be good enough. Nothing would be better than the way it was.”
Toby must leave; already he’s too involved.
That night she looks at him drowsily. She’s a wasp drunk in a barrel of rotting fruit totally willing to sting.
Toby gently rubs his leg.
The woman moves in a way that intimates they should leave together.
In the darkness they walk past the park, past the embassy and its security cameras, past the police booths, past the sleeping dog.
He retrieves a strip of his corduroys curled up in the darkness.
In Brutus’s flat they fortify themselves with plum brandy, chat and pistachios. The fax spits out some press briefings and the answering machine picks up Brutus’s calls. They take breaks for long kisses, which are difficult to execute due to the overly soft couch and the proximity of the glass table to Toby’s leg.
Her lips taste like Marlboros and grease.
She bumps him with her nose. She wants more, more than simple kisses, some pledge, and he obliges, leading him to the bedroom and the darkness.
They hesitantly shed some of their clothes and recline.
He glances at the woman’s curvaceous ivory thighs as she pulls up the blanket.
They soon reach some kind of deliverance kissing and stripping, smelling and clawing, pinching and rubbing. It’s an exquisite border oscillating between pleasure and pain.
“I can’t,” she says. “I’m —”
She doesn’t finish but pushes him aside.
“The fortress,” he concludes.
He lets whatever is stopping her slip to the wayside as the excitement wanes. He’s clearly disappointed and tries any number of cavalier caresses to recharge the woman’s confidence, but it’s not to happen.
Before dawn he rises and gathers his gear.
In the light he sees the sheets smeared with his blood, the blood of Dada, the blood from between her legs.
Toby wakes her with a kiss and leaves her to dress alone.
He benignly smokes, sips the Turkish coffee, then locks the door on the bloody sheets, carelessly forgetting about Brutus.
Toby maneuvers into an old rumbling taxi.
Dada smiles from the curb, but not without saying, “Make sure you wash today or else you will be cursed.”
He kisses her through the open window. I wish you well. Don’t despair that you hate everything and everyone.”
“I can be nothing more than a pet.”
Dada stands in her own country of regret, so far away.
The driver looks at Toby for a long time in the mirror before pulling away.
He shouts over the engine, “Eh! You! I know you!”
Toby doesn’t understand. He’s digesting the woman and her tears.
“I know you, I saw you on TV!”
He certainly cannot remember any TV.
“You’re the Italian who was bitten by the dog. I know. I saw it on TV. Nice. Nice.”
He carefully adjusts his leg into traveling position.
The embassy across from the park has recorded the detonating dog. Someone has edited the clip and sold it to the local news. Revenge has delegated him as sweet entertainment. The gore hasn’t gone, thanks to the weird foreign peace.
Would Not Wish
A broken street runs up a steep, cobbled hill. The street ticks with alarm clocks. Some bleat feebly. Men mutter under their breath, ‘Dinari, dollari, marki,’ selling alarm.
The train station is below. Toby’s futile search for jeton is over.
His contact leads through the symphony. Dmitry wears a foppish cap and a large hound’s-tooth trench set off by crimson pants. He signals that they should digress into the market midway.
Toby eats a greasy burek. He buys a bottle of hooch, then resumes the tramp through the mud and pebbles to Dmitry’s place.
Echoes of voices, amplification and whistles resound through the cold air.
A flimsy door opens into a long L-shaped flat.
Bijoux reads a comic book. Her hair is platinum and she sits under a poster of edible fungi.
Dmitry and Bijoux kiss.
Iggy Pop croons from the hi-fi.
Dmitry rummages in a brown paper bag. He brings water almost to a boil, puts the green poppy pods in the water. The concoction steeps.
Toby’s contribution to embargo breaking is a bag of dark-roast coffee, French cheese and a decent white wine. Dmitry skins up a joint to celebrate this unexpected payday.
Bijoux takes a puppet from a nook under the counter, brings the imp to life.
Dmitry checks on the progress of the poppy tea.
People step through the prefabricated door. A man arrives with his contrabass and two bottles of slivovic. A woman comes with a violin and lifts up her sweater. She flashes her breasts from under her cardigan and starts to sing in a husky language of love.
Guys with odd facial hair stand around the kitchen. They find a tray of grease in the oven and gobble it with stale bread and onions.
Dmitry pours the poppy tea. It’s acrid, horrid, slimy; it needs honey to make it palatable. Toby spikes his with hooch too.
Bijoux paints lipstick on the guys. Red-faced, people work the bottles of slivo.
With effort, Dmitry wheels in a piano from another room of the L-shaped flat; he commences to hit some atonal high among the bottles, ashtrays, foil packets of grass and pitchers of poppy tea. The violinist wiggles out of her pants and cardigan while playing. The bass plugs at the strings, maintaining a line of David Bowie.
Toby drinks the tea thinking it has no effect, that it’s harmless.
Everyone’s attention span deteriorates.
Dmitry is banging on the piano again. The piano is changing keys and be-bopping into the night; the blitzed keys follow the chord progressions from hot duets to languid jams. The violinist falls around an imaginary pole. She sings in her rich, husky voice and makes barely moving loops on her violin.
People find the cache of cheese.
The violinist lounges in a chair biting her tongue every time she tries to speak.
The tea creeps deeper into everyone. Their eyes are glassy and they’re scuppered in thoughts.
Frozen, Toby is ensconced in a corduroy chair, dazed.
The violinist slurs.
‘I want to sleep with Bill Clinton for world peace. Do you think I would get the Nobel Prize?
‘Don’t believe anyone, especially friends.’
The violinist retorts, ‘Don’t believe this sentence.’
Bijoux hugs herself in an orange blanket.
They are strung out, but Dmitry decides in his capacity as good host that the party must move.
No one is in a condition to go anywhere.
‘The booze has run out.’
‘And the cigarettes.’
That’s the word to motivate everyone. They’ve had enough of the gross, potent tea. It takes centuries to trip out the door. They careen down the stairs. Toby has his hat and scarf. He’ll have to do without his coat. The banister is under his armpit.
Everyone deliberates on the cold street.
‘The disco is Academia. The bar is Taboo.’
‘Taboo,’ says the violinist, speaking for everyone marinating in the cold windy night.
‘There’s another party too,’ Dmitry intimates.
They hail a pair of taxis on the slushy brown road.
Some city quarter glows red. Din reverberates in the car, a low bass tone.
People stand and jump and shout in the cold. The earth moves with conflict. They sound whistles, pets, pots, pans, drums and fireworks.
Cordons of police refrain them; they’ve already thrown rocks and petrol bombs at the TV.
The taxi slowly edges through the thick ribbon of people. They wave and knock. They lift up the car and carry it like a litter for a spell.
The party is in a groomed district. The smiling, hugging strawberry blonde hostess opens the door to the house and they barge in.
The host, professorial, chats with a tubby journalist. Tables of chic snacks and booze are against the windows. Other culturatti are dabbed among the white leather furniture and hardwood floors.
Denial colors the atmosphere of whispers.
Toby keeps his mouth shut about what he does or doesn’t know about privileges and opinions. A sloppy toxic brew bounces in his skill like a roentgen.
Havoc erupts as half Dmitry’s company heaves tea.
The tea spreads from bathroom to kitchen to salon.
It slides down the walls and sloshes in the porcelain. It fills potted plants, vases and drawers.
Dmitry is unaffected; the hostess is unconcerned.
They drink and toast profusely, unapologetic for the muck.
Bijoux dons stilts, dances and juggles airborne. The bass player pulls together some funky ethno-jazz for the sound system. People huddle over the tables, sagging from the bottles, ashtrays and snacks. The fare is vital life support.
The violinist presses her breasts into wine glasses. Her thong is filled with flowers. Her mouth, with beads.
The hostess bobs her head; it’s for granted that everyone is totaled.
Toby shows her the lipstick coagulated on his nipples, much to the violinist’s approval, who then kidnaps the professor and whips him with what’s left of her thong as he pours the various receptacles of vomit into black plastic bags.
Unconcerned, the hostess elaborates a point about resistance.
He’s noncommittal, lets her identify the enemy.
This is interspersed with verbal tag about literature while fitting bite-size tidbits in their mouths.
He spots her varicose veins.
She makes a tangent about tapping phones after midnight, when all the lovers talk.
The smell of vomit mixes in the air with the scent of sickly sweet incense and thick cigarette smoke.
Dmitry interrupts the hostess. Does she have any cocaine?
Toby hurriedly excuses himself. He doesn’t make it to the facilities before exploding from every orifice imaginable. It gathers momentum as he lyses on the hallway tiles.
Someone is dancing on the table and kicking bottles and ash to the floor.
He chews on his tongue.
The solitary fizzy crack of a bottle of beer awakens the sleeping company sprawled in the party zone.
Toby rolls in the professor’s robe on the sofa. His skin smells of fancy soap. The room of clean clothes and fried eggs.
The tubby journalist watches television and curses repeatedly at the news in low breaths.
‘Fuck your mother!’
Footage of severed heads, hands and feet. None too bothered, they want beer, coffee and eggs.
Dmitry’s timing is impeccable. Turkish coffee steams in a brass pot. A creamy, smoky texture in his mouth follows a wrinkle of foil.
The hostess appears in her silk gown and fixes her face.
He enters with a massive caper and ham omelet, bottles of cold beer and shots of cold slivo.
The hostess blesses everyone in her cool, cordial manner.
Dmitry kindly brings Toby’s warm clothes from the dryer and hints that they should venture out into the suburbs.
One limb at a time, he reassembles, slurps the runny beer and omelet.
They thank the hostess and whisk through the door.
Dmitry enthusiastically stalks against the wind, his coat and hat flapping like the slow wings of a stork.
The cold, frozen suburbs are populated by a uncomfortable mix of regime and opposition. Harmless family men, pencil pushers, putter home in their drab cars for lunch.
Boys play half-court basketball on this blustery but sunny day. They whimsically smile at the henchmen who guard the dark mansions well off the leafy drives, homes secured by gates, cameras and barking dogs. They all keep in mind that no precaution is enough when a hireling is no longer useful.
Cavalcades of Mercedes worry the curves of the suburban hills, on the way to anywhere the regime does business — embassy, jail, barracks, hotel, bank. Refinery, TV channel, parliament, sauna. Brothel, cemetery.
The violinist’s breasts volley into them.
‘You can’t leave without me,’ she says, panting.
An orb nudges Toby; an orb nudges Dmitry.
The hill is landscaped with dry fountains, wide white stone stairs and conifers. A large amount of buses requisitioned for the national police are parked in the area.
The police play cards, smoke, on call but inactive, like priests in urban camouflage. They read opposition papers, listen to opposition radio. A white stone building holds more blue police (priests).
‘They’re bussed in from other cities,’ Dmitry explains. ‘Pays quite well, busting heads.’
An empty plinth rests in front of the white building, what appears to be a mausoleum or museum. The police are gathered in a smoky hall. Empty glass displays fill the dusty foyer. An irritable porter rises from the entrance
‘Can we see the man?’ Dmitry asks.
The porter hisses, a cigarette jabbed in his mouth.
‘He’s… gone. Poof!’
‘Wasn’t this Tito’s mausoleum?’
‘Whoever was here is here no more. That’s all I know, young man.’
The porter bangs shut the fragile aluminum door.
‘Shall I show him my tits?’ asks the violinist.
Dmitry is quick to stop her.
‘Please don’t. It’s enough. The cops really will beat our heads.’
Dmitry turns to Toby.
‘The man behind all the wonderful misery in this country doesn’t exist, I’m afraid.’
Toby is unsure whether to commiserate or joke.
‘It goes slowly, my friend, tearing at your nose, smashing your teeth, cutting out your tongue. Then the memories go, once you’re silent, a sociopath.’
The kooky violinist suggests a remedy.
‘If I was a bit older when he was in his prime, when I sat in his lap and smelled his anchovy garlic breath, if he could have poked me with his finger…’
They turn back down the stone stairs.
Was Tito a molester?
The police are visibly awestruck when the violinist hugs some of them, presses their heads down her cleavage.
‘Psychological warfare,’ she says, skipping behind a roar of police approval.
‘Tea?’ asks Dmitry, pulling a plastic bottle from his coat. He gulps at the acrid stuff and the pockmarks move in his face.
Toby takes a slug.
A rusty trolley carries them back.
No one has a ticket, but Toby is singled out for a penalty from the inspector. The trolley, like a giant cockroach, antenna clacking and sparking overhead, bursts at intervals to deposit its eggs, pauses at another cockroach carapace. The brown roaches can proceed no further than the edge of a demonstration rounding a red church set in a plaza.
Newscasters babble into microphones. Fireworks crack nearby. Horns and pans clang in the protestors’ hands. Sound systems and men with beards, the opposition, ride on floats above the crowd.
Phalanxes of police mass and charge. They bombard the mob with tear gas, batons, shields.
Eggs and stones are hurled in response.
A clever person succeeds in setting a bus on fire.
People are coughing and getting clubbed for their public spirit, as they would be anywhere.
A Gypsy brass band is beating an unpredictable bass line somewhere deeper in the protest. A rattling snare taps a mesmerizing stutter of beats and rests, complemented by tarnished, flat brass breaks.
The kids mock the hulking lines of unhappy police.
Dmitry introduces Toby to countless sympathizers. People shake his hands or give three-fingered salutes. He drinks from a flask and eats a piece of baklava, alcohol and nuts and sugar a good antidote to the hours of cold. He pets someone’s ferret. He smokes a black cigarette and lights the fuse of a bottle rocket.
Dmitry and his male friends rate the women in the medley. A rude comment will substitute for seduction.
A large noisy square. More people are assembled here, imagining.
With the tips of his fingers Toby navigates like a queasy ant. He feels a way through the mamba-like crowd hollering for justice and equality. They howl with an assortment of slogans and curses.
People hang from scaffolding, statuary and stop lights. Flares and roman candles make a canopy of smoke and stars. The square rebounds. It’s acutely claustrophobic, but a good space for solidarity — grotty students, the internally displaced, impoverished teachers, disenfranchised adults and their children, frustrated professionals, rancid pensioners and whoever else wants to complain about the perversion of their lives in a country that hardly exists.
They march on Belgrade to protest against the seedy merchants of war day after day. Absolutely nothing changes. They shout and bang pots anyway.
Satisfied by his quotient of jeers, Dmitry gives Toby the nod.
They scuttle into a side street, slip through the muck. They arrive at a roach depot and slide between the barely buzzing doors.
‘This country’s sick,’ Toby says.
They squeeze into a torn up seat.
‘Ah, but give the country medicine. Very heavy medicine. Have a very big mind and very nice ideas. Of course, that’s not the point. It gets complicated against a world that doesn’t like us. We’re tolerably exotic, my friend. But we give medicine, and that medicine is hope.’
Across the river the city abruptly changes. One huge nondescript estate of flats follows another.
Dmitry indicates where to get off.
They enter a block. It has a huge blue P painted on it. Alphabet City. Tower P.
The stairwell is decorated with broken windows and lights. Each door is fortified with bolts and bars. Plants, shoes and a mat sit outside most numbers.
Dmitry knocks at flat 6,023.
For a moment, no reply, then the sound of feet behind the door.
Dmitry grunts acknowledgement in the darkness.
Locks tumble. Deadbolts fall.
Out pops a fuzzy head, then another. The latter appears to be a disgruntled mother.
‘Good afternoon,’ they say with gravitas.
In two quick steps they are in the kitchen and rustling up pivo. The kitchen is filled with clocks, lots of clocks, audibly sweeping the dim air. They sound, dong and beep on the quarter hour. There’s a clock in the fridge.
‘Charlie,’ says the fuzzy head, leading them through a plain white door. ‘I’m Charlie. Welcome to my room.’
The room is a cabinet of wonders. It defies its lines. It’s part smithies, pathology lab, dark room, audiovisual suite and atelier. Every surface is organized: feathers, skeletons, nails, skulls, wire, screws, hide, scrap iron, tape, saws, an autoclave, cables, pliers, catalogues, bass, keyboard, guitar, chisels, Macintosh, slide projectors, decks, CDs, enlarger, samples, microscope, sculptures, coal, an anvil.
They slurp the pivo and leer at a collection of videos.
Dmitry and Charlie are making a documentary about the violinist.
They goggle at a transfer, old Super-8. She’s cavorts in the cool Adriatic. They piece this with other strippings from her life.
Another video shows how to avoid conscripted service by shooting oneself in the foot.
Dmitry’s pockmarks seem to be bleeding like rusty portholes.
The last tape: explosions and experiments on animals.
Dmitry and Charlie high-five at the most successful scenes.
Bombs are poised to fall on the city, but these two men are cheering. At this point they even hope for the bombs. But they will have to wait. Smaller detonations are elsewhere and surely they will come visit their master. That’s certain.
Excited by the eye candy, Dmitry and Charlie fool around with the instruments and tools. The collaboration devolves into a punching contest. Berserk, they roll from floor to ceiling. Charlie finally cedes a few macho points as Dmitry sucker punches Charlie in the kidneys.
The yoke of his jeans stain red as Charlie pees blood and calls in agony for his mother.
She brings Charlie new jeans, a bag of ice for the bludgeoned kidney and ointment for the surface wounds.
Charlie hocks up blood, catches it on his chin.
The violinist has returned to the video and she waves at them.
In the aftermath Dmitry mentions his creed.
‘Break bottle or chair first. Then fight. Then go crazy. Since Charlie’s my friend I try to not go so crazy. It gets easier.’
Dmitry, impatient, paces in Charlie’s cage.
Charlie insists on coming.
His mother caws down the stairwell then securing herself in her nest of clocks.
They each give Charlie a shoulder.
The brown roach scuttles across the bridge. The river’s surface is shrouded in fog. On another bridge police and protestors are fighting; this route is unimpeded. Charlie winces and urinates in his clean jeans on the remainder of a vinyl bench.
An old lady wrinkles her nose.
At the roach depot they transfer. A new roach turns onto a relatively graceful avenue and it’s here where the roach ride ends.
Charlie shouts to Dmitry who brushes an icy hedge.
Charlie spits blood on a car.
The villa is just a step behind them.
An old man in a cardigan greets them from behind a lectern. The old guard turns on the ghoulish lights in the darkened museum and hitches up his trousers.
Dmitry and Charlie are already checking out the collection.
The rooms smell like mould. The first one is filled with personal effects: a beaver-skin top hat and a silver-handled cane, telegrams that speak about a Nobel Prize, manuscripts and sketches marked up with the language of physics. What follows are mock-ups of early electric devices demonstrating one electrical principle or another. A portrait and biography of the creators (volts, amps, faradays) is underneath.
They wow around the bigger inventions of the bigger man: Tesla. He of ten million volts, vacuum bulbs, remote control, the Niagara Falls’ Hydroelectric Plant, and the worldwide wireless transmission station on Long Island.
The guard agrees to switch on the oscillator that occupies one entire room. Coils of copper cover it.
The machine hums to life; current begins to gather in the ribs of wiring.
They all straighten as the electricity sparks among the wires.
The room fills with blue lightening; it passes around them, maybe even through them, as body and mind join the circuit.
Toby’s skeleton and tissue regenerate in the blue vibrating electrical stimulus. Charlie’s wounds heal. Dmitry smiles. Their marrow tingles.
The guard grins through the web and seems pleased with his miracle. Gradually the oscillator slows; the energy and lightening dissipates.
He shuffles to his lectern and drums a rhythm with his fingers.
He gives Toby a calendar illustrated with other weird machines, including one that even harvests the energy waves of the earth. Kindness beams from the caretaker who simply smiles before he switches off the rest of the exhibition.
They hop down the villa’s marble steps. They sprint after one another for as long as their lungs will let them. They stop to return canisters of tear gas to the police.
A speaker broadcasts from a window.
‘Crazy Demo… Demo Crazy.’
News anchors relay the chaos to the world from the perimeter. Toby runs among the running people not knowing when the putsch is going to happen. Hushed, palpable tension fills in the lull of people diffusing away from the police, who have failed in hemming in the protestors and delivering the blows they have been waiting with relish for.
Dmitry’s flimsy door.
Already, Dmitry has unstashed the notoriously decent white wine once tucked between the windows. He uncorks it and they congratulate one another’s health.
Dmitry rousts Bijoux from the L-bowels of the apartment. Her mouth is brown and bruised from the tea.
‘Make more, Dmitry.’
She coaxes. She scratches around like a withdrawn doll for the brown paper bag of pods.
‘More, more. Do it better than I do. More like medicine.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ he says.
It’s a whisper, maybe to Toby or Bijoux or simply himself.
Tea steeps grimly.
Toby plunks down somewhere in the mishmash of chairs and couch. There is nothing to make the tea palatable. Bijoux has eaten all that.
They sip the horrible tea, mix it with hooch.
‘I’m from here and that’s what counts,’ proclaims Dmitry, pride in his voice.
Cold rears through their bodies. Time deamplifies. Minor chords faintly resonate in the piano. Bells toll over the rooftops. Plumes of smoke fill the night sky. The strange red glow.
Toby sucks on a poppy pod, sucks the black seeds like roe. He vanishes into the corduroy chair.
The company resigns to the stupor of inner space, but sometimes it erupts in weird, explosive, hysterical squalls of emotion that rip through Dmitry’s L of the Lost.
No party. Something’s wrong. The miracle has dissipated.
Dmitry pouts in a corner.
The music stops. No one responds. The sky glows red. A door closes.
Everyone again purrs as the void opens. Toby’s face clouds with storms. His soul is sucked away.
After a numb timeless interval a shape levitates and whispers, ‘Medicine, medicine.’
Bijoux smells of vomit. She takes Toby’s hand and leads him deeper into the L. The ghost shows him her feet.
Two bags of bricks are tied to them. She’s hanging from the heating pipes. Bijoux’s face is agape and distorted by the deep groove of the noose.
He lifts up the dead weight of her body but it’s far too late. He shouts for Dmitry and he blunders in.
She’s leaking fluids and smells. She’s hard to cut down.
Dmitry cries and the grief makes his nipples hard. No mist accumulates on the mirror they put over Bijoux’s mouth in a bid to console her. Dmitry kicks Toby away and kisses her. Dmitry doesn’t know the day or the hour, but he knows that Bijoux is dead. Bijoux has won the magic ticket — like mobsters done in by one another, refugees dead from heartbreak, pensioners and kids who overdosed on fright, young men of exploded lungs and livers, Gypsies killed by their neighbors and girls besmirched with shame.
War will take anyone. One doesn’t have stand directly on the battlefield. Bullets can round corners.
Dmitry pours alcohol over Bijoux’s body, resuscitates her with a cigarette. The tea and brandy well in Toby’s guts. It pushes his mouth open like he’s about to spit out a dick. He’s about to confess, and it soon steams in the cold room.
Skopje is divided by earthquake and fire. The inhabitants neither cooperate nor speak. They’re neither charming nor friendly. Some are more privileged than others; that’s enshrined in law, an everlasting feud. Mosques squat on one side of Skopje and orthodox churches on the other. A medieval bridge reaches over the Vardar. The way is littered with the habits of lovers, junkies, dogs, unemployed and children. Helicopters hover overhead.
The hills smell of pines.
Is it the right villa?
Felix steps from a white Ford. He welcomes Toby with both hands and a hard hug. He ushers him to the terrace on the top floor.
“There’s been a mix up. I’ve no roommates,” Felix says. “So far there’s nothing the organization can do.”
Humanitarians keep the peace. Humanitarians work in offices that specialize in water, food, tents, medicine and schools. With them comes a local rise in rents, rarely in pay. They splash their international salaries on pirate software, counterfeit goods and birth control. They drive in brigades from one lavish restaurant to another. They blunder after the local females. They fall prey to nightclubs and whorish urges. But upon returning to their dormitories they dream of their careers and benefits in the aid hierarchy. They satisfy themselves with memories of Carla in Cincinnati or Michele in Arns, some failed liaison, probably what prompted them to find fortune in humanitarian work in the first place.
A small celebration ensues. Red wine spills on the terrace and old folk music blares over the secluded neighborhood.
It’s not long before the humanitarians and some local support stop by. They are the kind of friends who can smell, and ruin, a good time. The internationals chat about popcorn, baseball or porno, and a scramble of logistics jargon accompanies the gluttonous drinking. They think this is the pad.
One of them drawls, “Man, where are the chicks? You guys fags or what?”
“It isn’t a bordello. Try Ohrid,” Felix replies curtly.
All the humanitarians consider the possibility. However, they will tire quickly as their mobiles intercede in the rest and relaxation, each face counting how many days of lucrative contract remain.
They leave in a fleet of white cars.
The locals are less anxious to go, now that the raucous loud brigade has left. They reveal the pot stashed in their pockets and lambaste their own conflict-prone kingdom while smoking.
Bugs zither in the night. Cool air wraps around the lush neighborhood. The house is empty and silent. Toby scrunches in a blue beanbag among splashes of iron wine and loose tobacco.
The long run by taxi to the villa plays in his mind, a perpetual window of rushing landscape. It washes like water. It cleanses like water. His body slips beyond the grasp of daily life.
Sleeping, it’s on the move.
The passengers smell too human, like piss, alcohol and ass. They disburse before the line that demarks passport control. An entire Chinese military band arrives. Pale faces enclosed in olive uniforms. They gesture amusedly among themselves as the officers make order.
Toby fingers the surplus of money in his pocket. A few men in pastel suits drip in rank torrents of sweat, looking for clients.
The Chinese marching band has meanwhile overwhelmed the local military attaché.
Toby bides his time against the fly-specked windows, listens to where people want to go.
He identifies the man who can drive to the border for a reasonable amount.
The tiny Fiat revs down the city’s clogged ring. The car is so infinitesimal that it skirts along the mud and puddle verge, passing like a mosquito, before swerving into the mountains.
The wiry driver curses and moans.
The border, the distance.
He’s not the right man after all.
A bribe to the police for supposedly speeding compounds his misery as the car zigzags from village to village.
He studies his mirrors and flags the car behind.
“This is the right man,” he aspirates. “He can take you all the way, not just to border.”
Toby transfers to the larger car, a little confused but willing to join the new driver. The gold aviators and medallions mounted in a matt of body hair seem a good indicator.
The only other passenger beams: gold incisors and gold jewelry.
He says hello in garbled fragments, then settles down.
Throughout the mountains: shanties, carts, garbage and inexplicable networks of pipes; fields of poppy, wheat, sunflower. Kids sell red onions along the road that terminates in a steep pass and a custom’s office.
The driver and front seat passenger chat. The taxi idles.
A group of what appears to be American women in a BMW with diplomatic plates arrives in the next lane.
“Please loan me a phone to call my friend?” Toby calls out, amused.
They carry on the front of the queue.
The guards change shifts. They shackle their belts around their bellies. They dawdle with any documents that might cross their desks. The taxi exits by dipping through a pool of decontaminating solution.
At the next post the same performance is duplicating itself. Shifts change and mandatory breaks are taken. Inspecting cargo and passengers can begin again.
Men in black leather jackets mill around a strip mall of cafés and mechanics. Anyone’s facsimile can be laminated between the leaves of any passport, available in the border strip mall. People trade openly.
The displaced scrum migrates from one crummy locus to another. They have inhabited the outpost since the beginning, shades possessed with too much patience.
There is the woman with no teeth. There is the man without a leg. There is the boy without a mother. The girl without a chaperone. The young wolf. The smuggler. The money changer. The beggar who knows not his mother. The woman with moles on her fingernails. The man with fingernails in his brow. The woman with twenty children. The man with many dead.
Thankfully, the car coasts down the mountain pass to the villa, comfortable and far removed from disheartening reality, a refuge from the strange dance of traveling dreams.
Toby moans into his pillow.
Felix stretches his ribs on the sunny terrace and pours the coffee that tastes like blue beard.
Soon they engage the white Ford. Felix will be meeting sundry people and assessing the situation. His assignment is water and sanitation. He collects two young men from a Roma activist group.
Two men point the way up a track. It’s littered with scrap. A settlement of dilapidated houses perches on the slope. Women smile among the children and filth. They sweep porches or tend fires. Kids tug at their clothes and the elders gesticulate. The two men translate from Romany as the women show the rudimentary latrines and human waste. Horrible brown water issues from the communal tap.
Felix takes a few notes of the state of affairs.
They buck on the next settlement, following the stinking run-off.
The settlement is made of refuse and children, who welcome them with cries of “Turks, Turks!”
Fences are cobbled together from mattress springs, hubcaps and recycled lumber. Many houses are simply mud and cardboard. Old cars and horses pasture here too.
It reeks of fire and feces. The polluted stream is prone to flood and spreads sludge over the neighborhood. The muddy road makes muddy kids who are excluded from school for being muddy. School is a low priority after washing, gathering firewood and scrap, or selling fruit and vegetables by the roadside. Surprisingly, a boy practices on Casio and another sings to the babies and girls walking down a small winding passageway.
“That woman under the walnut is 130 years old,” they say.
They munch a few hard pears from a garden as their shown a glass of putrid rusty, coolant-colored water.
The people cluster around Felix: surely he can understand and give what they ask.
Felix nods reassuringly about meningitis.
Tent cities of refugees shimmer like mirrors in the mountains.
Each day yields a different string of settlements, some suffering from more despair than others, always on the edges, most often next to the town dump. They run with the foulest, most putrid, contaminated water.
But with the help of the two activists, Felix cajoles the local authorities to agree in principle: provide water and sewage if international money pays for the pipes and technical expertise. The communities will dig the lines. Water should be clean and nearly free.
Felix attends vague briefings on donors and projects. He submits his budget and report on the water and pipes. He crosses his fingers that he can help while Toby sits in a leather armchair in a mirrored hotel drinking pivo. The humanitarians dreamily amble past to the round table, some assessing the international poontang.
Later, he files his reports in the office. The air is permeated with aftershave, schnapps, sneakers and cigarettes. Felix wonders if he can arrange to pave the streets.
At night Felix enjoys the veranda.
The office savages inevitably drop by, desperate to razz them about being fags. They claim how unpalatable the country and the situation are; they relish tattling on relief dalliances and scandal du jour.
Felix doesn’t mention his developments in water and diplomacy.
Toby is polite and boring as possible.
Eventually the humanitarians retreat to the velvet furniture and television downstairs to surf through the sport and porn.
Toby and Felix snigger in the white staff car that zips to the deep lake. They pause at a panorama, conveniently also a restaurant, lamb turning over the coals. The meat slips between their fingers before they resume.
The alpine resort bustles with the kingdom’s landlocked citizenry. They’re eager for an ice cream and a swim. Restaurants and cafés are spread under the canopies of mammoth oaks.
Behind a kebab shack Felix finds a room that smells like the cheap perfume of teenage girls.
They migrate to the sweet water with a succinct idea of washing away the dust, shit and sun. Wooded properties of dachas stretch along the shore. Cusps of caves and cliffs smell like reeds and suntan oil. A nearby beach is smothered in corpulent people. Toby and Felix baste with them, swim out to a moored dinghy and dry in its green fiberglass shell.
The thought of a pink trout and green wine lures them both back into the crowded town. Monks patrol the passages and guard the Cyrillic alphabet secured in a monastery.
They inhale the seared antediluvian trout under an oak.
Felix dashes off about alphabets, syncretism, travel, religion; curses as he speaks over the sizzling candle. He’s nearer the plight of the dark people than most who are disbursed a white car in the name of assistance.
“Cigarettes are home in a box,” he says.
Felix is tipped off by acquaintances that a taxi ride around the lake could be fruitful.
Terraces of tents glow like impromptu lanterns above the shore. Waves echo from the lake. Narrow, wet gangways link the beaches. Under a crest of rock is a party booming with bass. DJs on scaffolding work the record platters for the kids. A banner above them has been printed with a map of the kingdom. The inclusive atmosphere is impressive. His mouth tastes like anise and trout.
The pale green lights of another kingdom sit across the lake, notched into the roan mountains and dun shore. The mountains breath with smugglers, donkeys and trucks. Contraband moves from one kingdom to the next. With a short journey across the straits, the goods enter the European market. The border is close, busy with traffic, the false moans of overused roadside whores and containers of Kurds, Bangladeshis, Chinese, Dagestanis, Moldovans and Kazakhs. Men in black leather jackets and black hats suck bones from the smoky grills. Smog chases the red and white sequins of car lights.
A Landcruiser of deviant aid jocks hustle through the queue. Privilege has designated the vehicle a diplomatic zone.
Kids kiss beyond the lights of the rave.
They sit on a bench on the amorous rock, absorbing the night and the energy of lovers. The bass unabatedly thumps the amorous rock. It smells of teenage boys and girls, strangely of love, of the pretense of youth and ideals. Kids are diving from the dark cliffs into the water from nooks in the rock. They are dependent on their courage. Some flail on the way down, but down they go, like coins in a dark box. With the warmth of dawn the land emits wild scent.
Felix’s white car noses back to the capital. Sun and cloud compete over the sharp mountain crags. Mosques and monasteries compete for the other sacred places. A man prays in his petrol station. Another under his fig tree. Another folds his newspaper, drinks his cold coffee.
The mobile rings.
“They want to know if we’re fucking.” Felix laughs. “Friends don’t fuck,” he says and turns the thing off. His sensibilities form a comfortable bond with room for privacy and silence, delicacy and reserve.
Outside the city, a white Mercedes pulls Felix over. Felix worries it’s his boss. Instead two squat merchants push the sale: silk shirts and leather jackets at a reasonable price.
The villa is cool and shuttered. The veranda beckons. Iron wine. Loose tobacco.
Felix scans the radio for mountain ballads but settles on pipes and drums.
They look into the trees, into the blades of helicopters patrolling the city.
The days pass assessing water and waste.
The two young activists lead more field trips, with occasional breaks at the activists’ office. A buxom woman who does the grant reporting also makes up the team. Another beautiful woman circulates, meticulously answers the phone, makes coffee, pours colas and empties ashtrays, all that’s expected of luscious black hair.
They stand in the biggest Gypsy settlement in the kingdom. It has a mayor and self-government, not only chiefs, bosses, leaders and elders.
The mayor and his right-hand man confer with Felix about the water problem.
Felix’s grant application to a donor who will give technical assistance for the engineering and money for the pipes.
“Everyone has to agree,” say the activists.
The settlement thrashes with life. The afternoon blazes with bands of brass and drums blaring marriage music, revelers splashing brandy and wine on the mud road.
That evening they warm to a chi-chi bar: Tiki torches, hammocks, wicker chairs, the shade of a sticky tamarind. They’ve both shaved. They slide easily over the flagstones, smooth and polished with time.
Toby vaguely recalls chatting with two gorgeous sisters.
“Sloppy kisses,” says Felix. “We got an invitation to meet them later.”
The boulevard is lined with blocks. Felix inquires about the number. A man selling plump watermelons points to a monolith, drab and stained.
They scout the ground-floor shops and buy a box of Mona chocolates emblazoned with a picture of a feathery-haired beauty.
The lift is claustrophobic.
They shuttle to the fourteenth level.
The wood-paneled door is the one.
The mother seems to be wearing a cropped blonde wig. She fusses over Felix because she is really delighted with the box of chocolates. She scolds one daughter into the kitchen to prepare a smorgasbord of sardines, cheese and tomato. The other sister is locked up in the bathroom. The mother quizzes Felix about what is he doing.
He answer indirectly while he sits in front of the dominant combination cabinet, filled with books and trinkets.
Then comes Toby’s turn, the spectator.
They puff through cigarettes. She takes that as a good sign about the double date.
Her eldest is squeezing lemonade. The youngest is primping.
“It’s her job since she won the national beauty pageant,” she says.
Together, they eat sardines and sip lemonade. The women flatter Felix disproportionately with their attention.
Toby drops an oily sardine on the yellow shag carpet, seeking attention.
“My children are insolent and unmarriageable,” the mother says.
The girls howl in protest.
She gives each a hard, assessing pinch on the hips and sends them out with a pleased look.
“What do you think?” the sisters ask Felix.
“Your mom’s sexier and brassier than you two,” he says.
It’s almost true.
They follow the sisters’ car to a dark municipal park. Other kids have the same idea on this sultry, hot night. A group of them sit under a mistreated gazebo somewhere in the park’s depths.
They don’t touch the drugs that the kids are rapidly consuming. They’re two old dinosaurs in this company — snogging and bounding, smoking huge joints of mountain grass and turning up the volume of a car throbbing music, cavorting in and out of the night, dissolving like pills and blotter.
“Where are you from?” the kids ask, surprised by the two foreigners.
It’s a good question and they can’t fathom an answer.
The richest, sickest country in the world?
The most privileged money and education?
The last of the tourists?
Certainly, they’re chasing their tails, nipping at something ephemeral, seeking old freedoms — until they are docked off.
Before too long a police patrol discovers the party in the park. The police demand everyone move on and wait for the signs of obeisance. No one wants to go anywhere since jettisoning their contraband into the surrounding lawn. With a tacit nod, the police relent and everyone can recover their gear.
The party keeps its ground after all.
Felix and Toby tire first.
On the veranda they drink together and think of the sisters.
Do they care?
Toby says, “Sisters of sin.”
Felix is repulsed. He retreats into wine and cigarettes.
The second bottle of wine has been opened when the headlights sweep the driveway.
The two sisters spill out of the car.
They have ideas.
They swim in whatever concoction they’ve ingested.
They seem to have already chosen what they want.
One sister asks Toby to shear her hair. With no regret, she urges him on.
The scissors isn’t especially shear.
He crops the fine thick black hair. It falls like luck from his knuckles to the tiles.
She crosses her legs.
Meanwhile Felix is twitching.
She tastes her hair, eats it, feeds her sister too.
He cuts it in great blunt clumps.
Too strong to be interfered with, the sisters rise and dance in the hair, look lash to lash, hold hands, red and transparent. They spin like cogs in a dizzying, dervish-like rigor of sweat, grace and muscle. Their eyes blacken into husks. Their tongues hang from their mouths, which engorge and resonate with some primal gagging tones.
The sisters purge: hair, sardines, lemonade, beer, blotter, ecstasy and Mona chocolates. Their throats expel veils of regurgitated hair and the diet of the days.
It’s really too late.
They struggle with the large objects: guns, dictionaries, decrees, treaties, grenades, chalk, mines, schoolbooks, hospitals, cables, regiments, gravestones, mortars and the sands of conflict.
Powder is power. Powder is talc, skin, saltpeter, cocaine, whiskers, meningitis, speed, attritus, arsenic, dust, fluoride, tuberculosis, soot. It’s salt, yeast, malt, pollen. It’s particles by the million, the index of authoritarian breath. Powder is the chemistry under the kitchen sink. Powder is finding powerful tools within easy reach. Powder is revolution, rebellion, resistance, insurgency, blowback. Powder is the scratch of heads. Powder is the dust of feet.