One time Poetry Editor for Gloom Cupboard, I return to the team as Assistant Fiction Editor. My preference for longer fiction shows in the collection I’ve put together here, but I feel each piece is well worth the ride. Enjoy!
No Hablo Espanol
The instant we cross the border, Mexicans swarm us. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m terrified.
They’re husky and black-haired with grizzled temples. They have moustaches. They wear white shirts and dark sunglasses. They shout at us and wave their arms, adding a layer of thick spicy sweat to air already choked with diesel and sewage fumes.
Darrell elbows through them, with me close behind.
Half a block of broken pavement later, they’ve given up–all but one. He’s younger.
“Tourist card, señor?”
Easy for you to say, Darrell.
The cabbie leads us through an arch to a white stucco building, where Darrell speaks Spanish to a bored-looking Customs official. He’s practically fluent, while I don’t understand a word. Christ, what am I doing here? He’s filled me up with stories of Mexico’s low cost of living, easy ways, and pretty senoritas.
Darrell tells me that since we’re going by train we’ll have to get tourist cards at the railway station. “That means a taxi ride, which is why this guy is smiling.”
Darrell claims that Mexican trains are luxurious. But based on my first taste of Nogales, I’m having misgivings.
(This was back in the seventies, when there was still passenger rail service in Mexico–and we looked like the Smith Brothers on the cough drop box.)
The cabbie wants to carry our luggage–two rucksacks. I’m not sure about this, but when Darrell hands his over, so do I.
Around the next corner, we find Junior’s cab. He opens the trunk with a coat hanger. After stowing our gear, he holds the door for us. Again, I hesitate. But when Darrell gets in, so do I.
The cabbie closes the door. Then he struggles to start the battered ancient Chevy. Finally, the old rusty clunker coughs back to life and we creep on, valves clattering, in a cloud of smoky exhaust. Other cars, I notice, do not stay in their lane. Or even on their side of the road. Very exciting.
I’m wondering about law enforcement when Darrell points out the traffic cop standing on the corner.
“Notice the Sam Browne belt? Mexicans are big on uniforms, the gaudier the better. See how he carries his gun in his belt, rather than in his holster? Another macho symbol.”
Vendors with little push carts wave at us. Most women are wearing long dresses, most men serapes and bolo ties.
At the station ticket windows, the lines are endless.
“Don’t worry, Mexican trains usually don’t run on time,” Darrell says.
“This is supposed to comfort me?”
The station floor is filthy. Some travelers are using cardboard boxes for luggage. After a long wait, I reach the counter, but the clerk waves me over to another official. He examines my birth certificate and hands me a tourist form to fill out. The instructions are in Spanish.
I grab Darrell by the arm.
He points to the bottom of the form, where there’s an English translation.
The clerk says something.
“What are you laughing about, man?” I ask, a little pissed.
“This guy asked me what I was doing with a gringo like you.”
It’s got to be the Spanish. Not all Mexicans are dark. Some are blonde and blue-eyed.
Our cards stamped, we go to a loading platform where another uniform shows us our train, which is powered by three yellow and blue diesel engines. Faces are staring at us through filmy windows.
“This can’t be our train.”
“It is,” Darrell says.
“No, you told me Mexican trains were better than American trains. This looks like something out of ‘The Great Locomotive Chase.’”
“It’s the only train to Guadalajara tonight.” A dilapidated bus screeches up to the station overloaded with passengers. “Would you rather take the bus?”
The conductor’s wearing a peaked blue hat. He tears our tickets in half. The first car is already clogged with passengers. We hurry to the next. Also full. When we finally come to some empties, I notice the white bibs on the head rests.
“First class,” Darrell says.
They’re not even reserved.
But the car’s filling up fast, so I pick one and sit. The bottom falls out. I’m sitting on the floor. Nobody reacts. I get up, shove it back in place, sit closer to the back. My breathing is almost normal by the time two barefoot kids take the facing seats. Their parents are across the aisle. Adorable kids. The dark-eyed girl is about seven, her shy little brother maybe a year younger. Both look clean. Their clothes are old, but meticulously mended.
I ask if they speak English.
They smile and shrug. Darrell leans over and engages their parents in a lengthy conversation.
“They’re been up north, trying to find work,” he reports.
“They seem desperately poor.”
“When I was in the navy–,” Darrell begins.
“You were in the navy?” It reminds me how little I really know about him.
“I saw countries where they were starving in the streets. But people down here don’t have it so bad. Where else can you live so well, so cheaply, and with so little guilt?”
Nobody I can see appears to be living particularly well. In fact, I feel guilty for having so much while they have so little. What will happen to these kids in the future?
Our journey continues through semi-arid high plains. The view is mainly farms and rangeland. We keep stopping at every village. More passengers jam aboard. Some wear “Jaws” or “Cold Bear Wine” T-shirts.
“Students on break,” Darrell says.
A few speak, but all I can do is smile. I assume that when the train is completely full, these too-frequent stops will cease. Meanwhile, women and children appear at the windows selling tacos, tamales, and fruit. All of it looks and smells delicious.
But Darrell wants to wait for the dining car to open.
Many of our fellow passengers are now standing in the aisle, which is almost impassable. Every time someone exits, a scramble ensues. The children are replaced by adults. One has a bandaged toe. I try really hard not to step on it, but there’s not much leg-room.
When the train is completely full, surely it’ll speed up.
A man on crutches says something to me.
Does he want me to give up my seat? I sympathize, but don’t want to. “No hablo Espanol.”
He keeps talking.
“No hablo Espanol.”
He keeps talking.
Finally, he goes away.
“Nicely played,” Darrell says. “He figured you for a rich American tourist, an easy touch.”
So now I’m the gringo who won’t give up his seat for a cripple.
The temperature soars as we reach the desert. I ask Darrell if the bottled water’s safe to drink.
“Safer than the puro in the hotels,” he says. “But if you’re going to get sick, why not just go on and get it over with. I get turista almost every time I come down here.”
“Now you tell me.”
“It’s no big deal. You don’t need a prescription for antibiotics here.”
“You have to know how to ask for them.”
“If you need penicillin, I’ll get you some. You’ll be fine.”
Hours later, I discover the toilet is nothing but a hole in the floor of the last car. You can actually see the ties flicking past under it. Eventually, thirst drives me out to the platform between the passenger cars, where people are lined up for Tecate. Eight pesos. One dollar. Not the best Mexican beer, but a lime slice comes with it.
The train continues picking up passengers, who sit on suitcases and lie under the seats. We never speed up. On rusty sidings, boxcar communities appear, complete with curtains and flower pots. Kids ride burros close beside the tracks. Hogs chase chickens. Goats butt heads. Kids skinny-dip in ditches. A porter collects bottles for the deposit and puts them in a wicker basket. Everything else winds up on the right-of-way.
“How can people here just throw their shit out the window?” I say.
I look at him in amazement. “They can’t even speak English.”
“Don’t be too sure. Insults are deadly business down here.”
“I’m not insulting anyone.”
His expression says I am.
I hang my head out the window, yank it back in. Brush is growing right up to the tracks.
At Guaymas on the Gulf of California, the harbor’s full of tankers and freighters. On the land side, it’s the Sierra Madres.
“Good-looking women here,” Darrell says.
“One time I got thrown in jail. You don’t want to do that, believe me.”
Adventure. We’re having an adventure.
The dining car opens at ten. Darrell goes to get us something. I save his seat. Exhausted Mexicans eye it.
He brings me a ham sandwich wrapped in a paper napkin. “Eighty fucking pesos!”
“I don’t care what it cost.” I wolf mine down.
“We’ll get something better in the morning,” he says, and dozes off.
Too exhausted to sleep, I lean over him to look out the window. There’s a full moon and lots of stars. Beautiful.
When I try to move back, though, something’s in my way.
A Mexican. Sleeping on the arm of my seat.
I realize the guy’s probably been standing up for hours, but if I wouldn’t give my seat to a cripple, I’m sure not giving it to him. How can I get rid of this guy without creating an international incident?
Finally, I don’t care anymore and I just shove him off. He crashes into another guy, starts a chain reaction. What now? Will I be thrown off the train? He struggles to his feet, shambles away. I blow out a breath. For the rest of the night, I keep my grip on the arm of the seat.
In the morning, the train stops at Mazatlan. Darrell’s still asleep. Women and children appear, dressed in colorful layers and carrying covered baskets. I pay one of them five pesos for boiled shrimp and a round loaf of bread. It’s fantastic. When I finish eating, I wipe my mouth and chuck the shells and wrapper out the window.
BIO: Rick Neumayer’s short story, “Where It Rains” will appear in EUNOIA REVIEW this month. Last month, “Robin’s Installation” was published in BARTLEBY SNOPES. “The Snake Cane” has been accepted for publication by 34TH PARALLEL MAGAZINE. Rick has also published short fiction in such journals as THE LOUISVILLE REVIEW and NEW SOUTHERNER. He writes Broadway-style original musicals, as well, three of which have been produced at RiverStage in Jeffersonville, Indiana. A Louisville native, he is a grad student at Spalding U.
The silence had become intolerable. It had been going on for what seemed like hours, the only sound coming from the radio and the slow tap-tap of Sadie’s fingernails as they bounced across the steering wheel. Even her breathing had changed, a gentle wheeze cutting through the hum of the air conditioning. I watched as she took another drag of her cigarette, flicking the ash into the palm of her hand before tossing it out the window. I had always told Sadie that she smoked too much but it’d be a cold day in hell before that girl listened to a word I said.
“Sweetie?” I asked coyly, giving her a little jab to the arm, “Is everything O.K? You’ve come over awful quiet all of a sudden.”
Snapping back into consciousness she turned to me, her eyes distant and unfocused.
“I’m sorry,” she yawned, “did you say something?”
“You,” I said with a smile, “you’re not talking. Just sitting there all silent and brooding. It feels like you’re planning to hate me.”
Sadie shrugged, batting my thoughts away with a nonchalant wave of her wrist.
“Oh, it’s nothing…Just daydreaming.”
“Inflation, the war in Iraq, global poverty… Nothing in particular really.”
Pulling my legs closer towards me, I tucked my knees beneath my chin and pressed my face against the coolness of the glass;
Sadie was in one of her moods.
She hadn’t said anything but you could tell.
It was in her voice and the stiff impatient way she played with her hair, the smoke from her cigarette curling up and around the crack in the driver’s seat window. She wouldn’t even look at me but stared straight ahead, out through the windscreen and into the looming dead blackness on the other side.
Her reaction, it has to be said, had come as a surprise.
Certainly with the school year over and summer stretching out in front of us there seemed nothing to worry about. There was no homework these days, no bedtimes or curfews, just ourselves and the great expanse of our youth. Time was ours to do as we pleased and even the weather seemed willing to oblige.
And then of course, there was September.
Just off in the distance, University stood before us, the promise of freedom more tangible than ever. There were the parties, the drugs, the new and exciting possibilities. We had heard all the stories and could almost feel our little town shrinking around us.
There was, it seemed, only one problem;
Sadie was going to London whilst I was to remain in Belfast.
Of course we insisted that this would change nothing, that it was only a temporary divergence of paths but nevertheless, I was nervous. The Royal School of Performing Arts was probably full of sweet and talented guys, the type of guys that wrote folk songs and went rowing, the type of guys that signed petitions and had relatives in Spain. And how did she expect me to compete with that? After all, I wasn’t a singer, I wasn’t a dancer. I just told them what they wanted to hear and hoped nobody would notice the smell. Kicking my feet up onto the dashboard and leaning back in my seat, I tried to resist the urge to ask Sadie about her co-ed dorm rooms. That conversation always ended in an argument and it was easier to just ignore the subject.
“Well,” I sighed, tracing my name into the condensation on the window, “At least you’re thinking about something useful for a change. God knows, if I had to listen to anymore of your white liberal, conspiracy theory bullshit and then I’d really know you had issues.”
Sadie didn’t reply but shot me another humourless glare, her attention quickly returning to inflation, the war in Iraq and global poverty.
The night had been a quiet one, flat and whittled away, characterised only by a lack of anything to do. Sadie had picked me up earlier and we had wasted almost an entire tank of petrol
tooling around town shouting at drunks we knew. When that had become tiresome we had pulled into a car park, smoked cigarettes and called the radio station with requests. It was almost 10pm, the light fading and the stars beginning to emerge, but it was warm in the car and neither of us wanted to go home. Besides, we had told our parents that we were going to the cinema and they weren’t expecting us back for hours.
Sadie nudged me, her delicate little hand resting on my shoulder.
“I’m bored,” she groaned, stretching extravagantly across the front seat, “Why is it that we never have any money?”
I smiled, running a finger over her cheek.
“Well you’ve changed your tune; I always thought you hated money. What was it you said? Money is debt?”
Sadie scowled, her eyes rolling about her head. She never liked it when I made fun of her politics and even less so when she knew I was right. Studying her reflection in rear view mirror, she replaced a few stray hairs before turning back to me.
“Well then Mr. Smartass, what do you propose we do? We can’t sit here all night…Feels like we’ve been stuck in this bloody car for days.”
I shrugged again.
“Well there is one option, although I doubt very much you’ll like it…”
Sadie’s eyes darted about the car before settling back on me.
“You’re talking about Gerard, aren’t you?”
“I’m afraid it would have to be…”
Sadie groaned, a pained expression flashing across her face.
“You know I hate that place Anto, it sickens me.”
“I know honey but this is the last time, I swear…”
She seemed to give it one last consideration before sliding the car into reverse, the gravel crunching beneath the tires as we rolled out of the car park.
McMahon’s was situated on the lower end of town, overlooking the quaint cobblestones of Seccombe Street and rows of dilapidated council estates. It operated mainly as a taxi rank but also sold booze and cigarettes to its most trusted clientele. Fortunately for us the proprietor, Gerard McMahon , was an old golf-buddy of Sadie’s father and had an obvious fondness for his friend’s eldest daughter. She was less enthused about this affection but was quite willing to apply a fresh layer of make-up before each of our visits.
Pulling up into the side street, we mounted the curb and got out.
A group of spides had assembled by the entrance and made no effort to move as we shuffled past. One made a comment I didn’t catch but assumed by their laughter it was about us. There were six of them so I didn’t respond but spat defiantly into the pavement, managing to hold their gaze until we got inside.
Sadie rang the buzzer and waited for a reply.
“McMahon Cabs,” came the voice, gruff and tinny over the intercom, “Gerard speaking…”
“Heeeey,” she chirped, assuming her most feminine persona, “it’s Sadie here, Sadie Russell. Can I come in?”
There was a shuffling from inside before he answered.
“Sadie hi…Yeah sure, come on up.”
Another buzzer sounded to release the lock and we pushed inside.
The “office” of McMahon’s was little more than a glorified cubicle, saturated with smoke and cluttered with rubbish and debris. When we entered Gerard was hunched over his table extinguishing a cigarette into a half full cup of coffee, trying in vain to cover up the worst of the mess. He smiled lecherously as Sadie danced towards him, a smile which quickly evaporated when he noticed me.
“Hello sweetheart,” he drawled, allowing her to rustle what was left of his hair, “and how’s my favourite girl tonight? Not up to any badness I hope.”
Sadie cocked her head to one side, toying girlishly with one of her earrings.
“Nooo,” she moaned, “We’re bored as hell…there’s never anything to do in this horrible little town.”
“Well you should be in bed, not safe for a young thing like to be out at this hour.”
Sadie giggled, sliding across the desk towards him.
“Don’t be silly Gerard, you know I can look after myself.”
“Oh I’m sure you can darling, I’m sure you can.”
A spasm of revulsion shot up my spine as his eyes sank towards her chest. Men like this gave the rest of us a bad name and it took all my strength to keep my fists in my pockets.
“Anyway,” Sadie continued, “I was hoping I could ask you a favour…”
“A favour? Sounds ominous…”
“Well we were hoping to make a few purchases…”
“Of course, of course, what was it you were looking for?”
“It’s just the thing is…”
“You’ve got no money?”
Sadie smiled, feigning embarrassment.
“Well,” Gerard beamed, that same lecherous smile returning, “I’m sure we can come to some arrangement. After all, if we can’t help out our friends, who can we, eh?”
Sadie’s smile widened, her hand slipping onto his lap.
“Aww Gerard, that’s so kind…I wish all daddy’s friends were as nice as you.”
A raw, hot pain seized my gut and I was moved to intervene.
“Listen Gerard,” I stammered, “would I be able to use your toilet?”
“You know where it is,” he grunted, not taking his eyes off Sadie, “the lock’s broken but I wouldn’t worry, there hasn’t been anyone down there in years.”
I could hear the room explode in laughter as I exited, the heavy metal door snapping shut behind me. I stood there for a moment listening to her squeals, his stupid, rambling jokes before I could pry myself away from the hallway.
The toilet was in an even worse state than the office, the paintwork peeling from the walls, floor covered in a thin layer of moisture. I took a long, final breath before stepping inside, holding it as I unzipped my trousers, wedging the door shut with a piece of broken tile. Standing there, looking into the yellowing green decor I read some of the graffiti etched into the walls:
STUARTY MAC IS A TOUT
GLENTORAN F.C. RULE
LISA HARDING LVS COLLY DOHERTY
Careful to avoid any mishaps, I slid The Blade from my back pocket, pushing it into the soft surface of the wall.
GERARD MCMAHON IS A PAEDOPHILE
I stood back to admire my work. Nice.
Finishing up, I shook myself dry, not bothering to flush before I returned to the office. Gerard and Sadie were still laughing as I squeezed back inside.
“Look Anto,” she smiled holding aloft two carrier bags, both of which seemed to be filled with wine and cigarettes, “look at what Gerard gave us.”
“Wow,” I gasped, genuinely surprised, almost regretting my previous slander, “that’s really generous of you Gerard.”
“It’s a loan,” he insisted, for the first time addressing me, “and they’ll be no other such little presents until I get paid back….In full.”
I held up my hands in a gesture of mock surrender.
“Sure Gerard, sure, whatever you say.”
“Next week,” Sadie smiled, bending to give him a little kiss on the cheek, “I promise.”
Gerard returned the smile but seemed dubious.
“Yeah well whatever, just make sure you do.”
I looked at Sadie, motioning towards the door.
“Well we better go here, that vino’s not going to drink itself…But thanks a lot Gerard, really. We won’t forget about this.”
“Yeah thanks a lot, you’re a life saver.”
Gerard, now deflated, redundant, grunted a reply, his attention diverted by the ringing of his telephone. He cleared his throat before answering.
“McMahon Cabs, Gerard speaking.”
Silently we waved our goodbyes and left. Thankfully, by the time we got outside, the kids had dispersed and we could walk to the car untroubled.
“He’s a creep,” whispered Sadie, inspecting the contents of the bags, “that is the absolute last time.”
“Yeah,” I agreed half-heartedly, “the last time.”
The car rattled into life as Sadie turned the ignition, a sharp blast coming from somewhere beneath the bonnet. We didn’t have a corkscrew so I had to use my knife to pry open the first bottle of wine.
I awoke the next morning to sickness and the distant crash of waves. The car was soaked in sunlight, full and blinding, the pain behind my eyes feeling as though it could at any moment push them from their sockets. Immediately I could feel a thick liquid ache rise from my stomach and threw open the passenger seat door. I gagged once, twice before expelling a corrosive wave of bile. I hung out the door, spitting until it ran clear. Taking a few more deep breaths, I wiped my face clean of sweat before collapsing back inside.
Slowly I began to re-orientate myself, the night coming together in vague, disjointed fragments. How had we gotten here? What had happened to all that booze? Strange half-memories
danced about my brain like disgusting little fireflies, irritating and confusing, shedding only the dimmest of lights. Glancing across towards the driver’s seat, I noticed it was empty. It was just like her to go missing at a time like this, right when I was suffering, right when I needed her most. Forcing myself upright, I pushed open the door, practically rolling out of the car. Careful to avoid the swelling pool of vomit, I could only manage a few more steps before a dizzying rush of blood forced me to my knees, my body sinking into the lavish softness of the sand dunes.
I sat and thought for a while, watching as the day opened up in front of me, the breeze blowing gently of the sea front, a dry summer warmth making its way across the coastline. In the distance, out past the breakers, out past the foaming chaos of the waves, a strange ethereal light was filtering through the clouds, falling towards the ocean in great golden columns. When I was a child, my mother always used to tell me of how they marked a soul’s ascension into heaven. It was of course, a fanciful notion, a fairytale, but now, with Sadie missing and logic compromised by the hangover, they seemed liked the work of a sick and vengeful God. Permitting myself a few more moments reprieve, I struggled to my feet, shielding my eyes from the glare of the sun as I passed my gaze across the beach.
“Sadie,” I called out, waiting for a moment for a reply, “Sadie, where are you?”
The only response was the dull rumble of the wind.
“Sadie? Sadie can you hear me?”
Nothing. But then a sound.
I followed the voice, still calling her name.
“I’m over here.”
And then I saw her, her firm little frame amongst the rock pools. She had removed her jeans and was now just in her long white t-shirt which stretched down over her thighs. She waved to me, her weight supported on a piece of driftwood.
“I found a crab,” she exclaimed, pointing excitedly into one of the pools, “come quick before it runs away.”
“Well don’t touch it, those wee bastards will have your finger off.”
Sadie seemed to ignore me, pushing the piece of driftwood further into the water, working it before pulling it back over her head, the little crustacean scuttling about the stick. A devious smile played across her lips before she whipped the driftwood, baseball style towards me, the crab flying helplessly through the air. It flew perhaps two or three feet over my head, exploding against a jagged piece of rock.
“Jesus Christ,” I swore, turning back towards Sadie, “what the fuck did you do that for? You could have hit me with that bloody thing.”
She didn’t reply but was seized by a fit of laughter, barely able to maintain her balance beneath the weight of her own humour.
“Your face Anto, you should have seen your face.”
Watching her, I couldn’t help but to smile.
“You’re a crazy bitch,” I muttered, “a crazy fucking bitch.”
“A crazy bitch? Well if I’m a crazy bitch then you’re a fucking pussy…Your face Anto, I swear to God…”
I shook my head, turning back towards the remains of the crab. It had landed near a little inlet of water where a mass of seaweed had collected, rotting and dying, emitting a vile, stale stench. Most of the crab had been crushed in the impact but a single claw remained. I picked it up, running it through my fingers.
“Poor wee bugger never had a chance,” I called back over my shoulder, “you can be a real killer when you want to be.”
Sadie shrugged, pushing the hair from her eyes.
“Bloody crabs,” she muttered, “nothing but sea-vermin.”
I smiled again, looking up towards the inlet. Running the claw between my fingers once more, I flung it, up towards the sand dunes, listening as it bounced against the hard tarmac of the car park.
Then I saw it.
It stuck out of a pipeline that cut through the mountains, out onto the flatness of the beach. I squinted, hoping it would take shape as nothing more than a piece of plastic or discarded furniture. But there it was. An arm. A human arm, cold and grey, dead and awful. It looked so casual, hanging out over the edge of the pipe as though it overhung a bed, waiting to be awoken by the morning alarm clock. It was small like that of a child, the glint of a ring bouncing off one of the fingers. There was certainly more, a body, a head, but they were concealed within the eerie darkness of the pipeline. I swallowed hard forcing another wave of nausea back into my stomach. An arm, a human arm.
“What are you looking at?”
Sadie’s voice pulled me back to reality.
“Nothing honey, just stay where you are.”
She couldn’t see it. I wouldn’t allow her to see it. She was still twenty or thirty metres away but was jogging idly towards me. Without thinking I ran towards her, scooping her up in my arms, almost falling under her weight. She giggled as I span her round, lurching away from the pipeline, away from the arm.
“What was that for?” she asked, taking my face in her hands, “don’t tell me you’ve come over all Marlon Brando all of a sudden…”
I managed to force a smile, giving her a little kiss on the forehead.
“No reason. Don’t have to have a reason, do I?”
“Awww, aren’t you just a sweetheart.”
“Well, what do you want to do now?”
Sadie’s eyes widened, her voice adopting the tone she reserved only for me.
“I want ice-cream,” she demanded playfully, her face twisting into a mocking little pout, “I want ice-cream and I want it now.”
I could almost feel my insides melt, my lungs sparking in the way only she could invoke. “Ok,” I sighed, playing at being exasperated, “let’s go get you some ice-cream.”
Sadie squealed excitedly, her legs kicking in the air. I thought I was going to drop her until she spoke again, this time calmly, entirely serious.
“I love you Anto, you know that, don’t you?”
“Yes darling, I know.”
“And you’ll come and visit me in London, won’t you Anto?”
“Of course I will…Once I get some money, of course I will.”
Sadie smiled contentedly tightening her grip round my neck. There was an ice-cream van a few hundred yards down the beach and I carried her towards it. I was exhausted by the time we were halfway there but, having already started with the romantic gesture, I forced myself to continue. The man in the window asked what we wanted, but we couldn’t decide. In the end we both got a large cone, dripping and stewing in strawberry sauce. We shared it as we walked along the shoreline, trying to remember what happened the night before.
The Elevator Story
My father’s favorite story was about the time he got trapped in an elevator after taking a laxative.
“There I was, a dashingly handsome man of thirty-two, heading home from a long day at the office, and the elevator breaks down. Just stops, like you see in the movies. Friday evening, I had nothing to do the next day, so I took some
Kaopectate before leaving. You know how your mother is about that kind of thing; I had to keep all that sort of medication at the office, which sometimes made the weekends a tad uncomfortable.
“Well, the only other person in the elevator with me was Marianne, who was Ted Bagsley’s secretary at the time. Young girl, maybe eighteen or nineteen. This was back when secretaries were hired more on their looks than their skills. And trust me, Marianne was qualified. Ol’ Ted knew how to pick ’em—curvy, flaming red hair, the biggest green eyes you ever saw. A real stunner, and polite, incredibly nice. She knew what her job really was, if you know what I mean. Soften up those hard-nosed old men before they stepped foot in Ted’s office to chew him out. The guys who screwed up the most, they always had the best secretaries.
“Don’t get me wrong. I was happily married at the time. Hell, you were just a year away. But a man can look, ain’t nothing wrong with that. And Marianne let me. I was just ogling her, making polite conversation too, the kind of thing you do when you’re in an elevator after work. You’re happy to be going home for the weekend, so what’s a little harmless flirting?
“Well, then the elevator stopped, between the second and third floors. Came to a dead standstill, and Marianne and I just looked at each other like, ‘Oh boy.’ Not frightened or worried, just amused. That kind of thing had never happened to either of us.
“Well, after the first hour, then we started to worry. I guess Marianne had a date that night, with someone more her own age, meaning someone she’d rather be spending her time with instead of this old married businessman. And me…well, after that first hour, my stomach started making noises it hadn’t made in a couple weeks, hence the Kaopectate. God bless her, Marianne pretended not to hear at first. We’d fallen into silence by that point, because there wasn’t much else we could say, and it was getting pretty warm in there.
“The grumbling only became louder, and I kept trying to cross my legs in new ways. Marianne did the same, because that kind of behavior is addictive, like sneezing, and so there we were, alone in this elevator, twisting around anxiously, one of us just nervous, the other about to shit himself.
“I remember thinking, very clearly, about my biggest fear back in high school. I’m sure you had the same one yourself. You’re out at a party, drinking like you know what you’re doing, but you don’t. And then you get the urge to just upchuck all over the place. You have to fight it, you have to choke it back down, because everyone’s looking, the girls especially, and if you spew in front of them, that’s it. You’re done. No more social life, no hopes of getting laid, no hanging out with the quarterback, nothing. You’ll be put at the table with the kids who are good at math, and that’s where you’ll stay until you die.
“Then it happened. Not in huge spurts, nothing dramatic, just started trickling down my right leg. The smell was awful. After a couple minutes, Marianne threw up. It was very dainty, too, exactly like you’d expect a woman like her to vomit. So there I am, shit running out the bottom of my pants leg, Marianne with puke all over herself. A perfect pair.
“Well, they finally got to us shortly after that. Got the elevator running, brought us down to the first floor. Most of the office had left by then, thank God. It was just the maintenance crew that greeted us. One of them threw up, too. I was laughing. Laughing like crazy. Marianne was crying. She quit shortly after that. Didn’t just move to a new office, she moved to a new city. Ted never forgave me, but he was always an asshole. The rest of us, we got a good laugh out of it. Made for a great joke at the company picnic, when the wives were busying themselves with wifely conversation. Hell, they even told it at my retirement party, remember? Lou Phelps standing up there at the lectern, giving the clean version of the story. All of us old farts laughing our wrinkled asses off, our wives and you young ones—well, those of you who hadn’t already heard it—thinking we were all crazy.
“You know, I married a lovely woman, I raised a great son, I’ve lived a fairly good life. And I think I can honestly say, me shitting myself in an elevator is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Hand to God.”
That’s the kind of man my father was.
(first appeared in Guernica Magazine)
Uncle Miki wasn’t my real uncle but ever since I could remember he was called Uncle Miki. And so. That spring the war still moved north but we did not go to it any longer. Uncle Miki took me away from the city one night with his sputtering Trabant. You want to play 007? he said. You know 007, yes? I answered. Keep quiet then, and stay low. I didn’t understand; it was pitch black and no one could see inside the tight cabin. Uncle Miki drove the little car with the hole in the floor with nervous urgency. During the getaway I pretended we were in Fred Flintstone’s car and in order to stop we’d have to shove our feet down the hole in the floor and onto the pavement. On the way we saw an overturned buggy with a dead horse. The wind was strong enough to spin the upturned wooden wheel.
We were given a room in the posterior of a peasant’s house in a village by the seaside. The room backed to the outhouse. It didn’t smell. There were pictures on the wall of a funeral and of an open casket with mourners standing all around. The deceased was a boy about my age. Framed on another wall was a letter in pristine calligraphy. It’s Russian Uncle Miki said squinting at the Cyrillic letters. Vanya piereti mierti ubit masinoi. Everything in that room was written in Russian. Uncle Miki said the boy’s name was Vanya and that he had been run over by a fuel truck just in front of this house. I think the peasant is the boy’s father, Uncle Miki said as he pulled out nose hairs with his fingernails while looking in the mirror. When he said that, he didn’t move his lips. It’s weird living in a room with a dead boy all over the walls, I said. Uncle Miki laughed. What does it matter? He’s dead.
In the summer Uncle Miki taught me how to play backgammon. And the peasant’s wife made cow’s tongue for us every Friday evening. One day Uncle Miki told me that there was no Saint Nicholas and that it was grown ups who left candies and gifts inside your boots at night, while you were sleeping. He also said that sheep weren’t really fallen clouds. That night I dreamed that donkeys pulling peasants’ carts could parallel park in the city.
In the fall Uncle Miki told me I’d have to move away from the country. He told me I was a Jew and that he’d arranged to have me taken on a Turkish cargo ship waiting in the Adriatic, to Izmir. What does it matter that I’m a Jew, I asked him. They’re killing Muslims. Why do I have to be taken to another country? And he said Jews were a bonus. They’ve always killed Jews, he said. And they’ll always kill them.
The night we left Vanya to his own room again, the house dog—a German Shepherd—had gotten loose from his chain. The peasant and his wife went out into the street whistling, and Uncle Miki shushed them while he tried to start the Trabant from third gear. The peasant went inside his kitchen and came out with two knives, which he rubbed together instead of whistling. He always comes to this, he whispered. He thinks he’s getting meat for dinner.
I looked back through the dirty glass while Uncle Miki grinded the gears and cursed and spat out the window. We were moving fast and it didn’t make any sense to me why he was so mad. For a moment, as we left the peasant’s house buried in the darkness, I thought I saw the dog run after our car. This bloody fucking century Uncle Miki said…began and ended in Yugoslavia.
But it wasn’t the German Shepherd. It wasn’t a dog at all.
Bio: Since emigrating to the United States from Romania in 1980 Alex has worked as a day laborer, a film projectionist, a music store clerk, a journalist/news writer for the U.S. Information Agency (Voice of America English Broadcasts), a TV Director for MSNBC and CNBC, and a freelance writer. Currently he is the Managing Editor of an education assessment software system at North Carolina State University. He is also a staff writer for The Lit Pub. Alex has published fiction in BRICKrhetoric, F Magazine, Airplane Reading, The Legendary, Camroc Press Review, Girls With Insurance, Trick With a Knife, Amphibi.us, The Monarch Review, Connotation Press, Slingshot Litareview, Specter Literary Magazine, Thunderclap Press, and Pank Magazine. He is the author of the novella “Short Lean Cuts,” available as an e-book at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The paperback version is available at Amazon.