CHICAGO, APRIL 18, 1994
Had I been dreaming, I would have dreamt of being someone else, with a little creature burrowed in my body, clawing at the walls inside my chest--a recurring nightmare. But I was awake, listening to the mizzle in my pillow, to the furniture furtively sagging, to the house creaking under the wind assaults. I straightened my legs, so the blanket ebbed and my right foot rose out of the sludge of darkness like a squat, extinguished lighthouse. The blinds gibbered for a moment, commenting on my performance, then settled in silence.
I closed the bathroom door and the hooked towels trembled. There was the pungent smell of the plastic shower curtain and disintegrating soap. The toilet bowl was agape, with a dissolving piece of toilet paper in it throbbing like a jellyfish. The faucet was sternly counting off droplets. I took off my underwear and let it lie in a pile, then stepped behind the curtain and let the water run. Wee rainbows locked in bubbles streamed into the inevitable, giddy whirl, as I fantasized about melting under the shower and disappearing into the drain.
I went down the stairs, carrying a mound of dirty laundry, careful not to trip over the inquisitive cat. I put the laundry on top of the washing machine, which shuddered as though delighted, and pulled the rope pending in the darkness--cobwebs sprung into the air around the bulb. I had to wait for the spin to throttle to a stop before I could put my laundry in the machine, so I followed the cat into the other room. There were boxes full of things that must have been left by the tenants--who might they have been?--who used to live in one of the apartments: wallpaper scrolls, a broken-boned umbrella, a soulless football, a bundle of shoes with crescent soles, a pictureless frame, skeins of anonymous dust. Back in the laundry room, I transferred the sodden clothes of the upstairs people to the dryer, then loaded the washing machine. In the other room, the cat was galloping around and producing noises of struggle, pursuing something I could not see.
Today was the interview day. I had called--years ago, it seemed now--and set up an interview for an ESL teaching job, strictly out of despair. I had been laid off from the Art Institute bookstore once the merry Christmas season, including the mad aftermath of the Big Sale, was over. My job there had been to unpack boxes of books, shelve the books, and then smash the boxes and throw them away. Smashing the boxes was my favorite part, the controlled, benign destruction.
Two white eggs roiled in the boiling water, like iris-less eyes. The floor was sticky, so I had to unpeel my bare soles from the floor with every step--I thought of the movies in which people walk on the ceiling, upside down. A cockroach was scuttling across the cutting board, trying to reach the safety behind the stove. I imagined the greasy warmth, the vales of dirt, the wires winding like roads. I imagined getting there, still clutching a crumb of skin, after almost being cut in half by something immense coming down on me.
I had tried other bookstores, but they didn't want me. I had tried getting a job as a waiter, elaborately lying about my previous waiting experience in the best Sarajevo restaurants, high European class all, and nonexistent on top of that. I had spent my measly savings and was in the furniture-selling phase. I sold, for the total of seventy-four dollars, a decaying futon with a rich cat-barf pattern; a hobbly table with four chairs, inexplicably scarred, as if they had walked through fields of barbed wire. I was late with my rent, and had already looked up the word eviction in the dictionary, hoping that the secondary, obsolete meaning ("The action of conquering a country or of obtaining something by conquest") would override my landlord's primary meaning and save my ass.
The frighteningly simple thing was that when I was inside nobody was on the porch: the green plastic chairs convened around nothing; the swing still quaked under invisible weight; the empty flowerpots faced out, like Easter Island heads. A fly buzzed against the windowpane, as though trying to cut through it with a minikin saw. In the house across the street, a bare-chested man, skinny like a camp inmate--his shoulder-bones protruding, his trunk striped with rib shadows--was coming in and out of his house feverishly, only to disappear into it in the end. I was about to lock the door when I saw the cat gnawing on a mouse's head, patiently exposing its crimson essence.
And it hadn't been just the money. When I couldn't smash the boxes, I had obsessively read the papers and watched TV (until I sold it) to see what was happening back home. What was happening was death. I had looked up that word too: "The act or fact of dying; the end of life; the final and irreversible cessation of the vital function of a plant or an animal."
The air was oily and warm, and I stood on the street inhaling. There had been a time when that scent marked the beginning of marble season: the ground would soon be soft and you didn't have to wear gloves; you could keep your hands in your pockets--waiting for your turn, revolving marbles with the tips of your fingers--until a red line appeared across your palm, marking the border between the part of your palm that was inside and the one that was outside. You would kneel and indent the soil with your knees, imprinting smudges on your trousers, progressing toward an inexorable punishment from your parents. I had a couple of marbles in my pockets, plus an El transfer card, creased and fragile.
A woman with spring freckles, towed by a giant Akita, smiled at me for no apparent reason, and I stepped off the pavement--confused by the smile, scared by the Akita--onto the ground. I let the woman pass, and then walked slowly, as if walking through deep water, because I didn't want her to think that I was following her. The Akita was sniffing everything, frantically collecting information. The woman turned around and looked at me again. The sun was behind my back, so she squinted, wrinkling the ridge of her nose. She seemed to be on the verge of saying something, but the Akita pulled her away, almost ripping her arm off. I was relieved. I preferred being a vague, pleasant memory to having to explain who I was or telling her that I had no job, and when I had one I was smashing boxes.
A teenager in a window-throbbing car drove by, pointing his finger at me, shooting. I crossed the street to look at a sheet of paper pinned to a tree in front of a building exuding dampness. The sign read in red letters:
I lost masculine dog, this coctail spaniel and his name lucky boy. he has long, long ears and curve hair gold brown color with short tail also he is very friendly, little crazy. if anyone found my dog please please contract maria.
Outside the El station, a man with a black bowler hat was rattling his tambourine, out of any recognizable rhythm, singing a song about the spirit in the sky in a flat, disenchanted voice. The man smiled at me, showing dark gaps between his teeth. When I was a boy, spitting between your teeth was considered a great skill, because you could achieve precision, like those snakes in Survival spurting poison at terrified field mice, but my teeth were too close together, and I could never do it--after every attempt there would be some spit dripping off my chin.
The station smelled of urine and petroleum. A dreadlocked woman in a yellow
vest rummaged through a closet with metal doors under the stairs, then took out a shovel and looked at it with surprise--she semed to have expected something else. I ascended with the escalator onto the platform, and waited there to see the train lights. The wind was rolling an empty can toward the edge--the can would stop, trying to resist the push, then roll again, until it finally fell over the edge. A mouse scurried between the rails. I expected it to be electrocuted on the third rail: a few sparks, a shrill squeal, a stiff, dun mouse, still surprised by the suddenness of the end.
"All we ask for," said a young man, with his hands folded over his crotch, "is to give your life to Jesus Christ and follow him to the Kingdom of God." His companion, wide-shouldered, bearded, walked through the train car offering everyone a brown bag of peanuts and salvation. An old lady with a plastic wrap on her bloated gray hair grinned abruptly, as if a shot of pain went through her body at that very instant. A wizened old man, wearing a grimace of perplexed horror, and a sallow straw fedora, looked up at the peanut man. A young woman in front of me--a pointed tongue of hair touched her collar, and she smelled like cinnamon and milk--was reading the paper. defenses collapse in gorazde, a headline read. I had been in Gorayzde only once, only because I had vomited in the car, on our way somewhere, and my parents stopped in Gorayzde to clean the mess up. All I remembered was being thirsty and shivering on the front seat, as my father retched in the back seat, wiping it with a cloth; and then my father leaving my cloth- wrapped vomit by the road, and hungry, desperate little animals crawling out of the bushes to devour it. The woman gave a neatly creased dollar to the peanut man, took a bag from him and ripped it open, and then started crunching the nuts. I said: "No, thank you." Granville, Loyola, Morse. The woman flipped the page, a few nutshells pitter-pattered on it. sunny skies warm most of nation. We all disembarked from the train at Howard, leaving behind throngs of peanut shells, and a drunk in a Cubs hat, slumped in the dark corner.
There was something exhilarating and unsettling about going in the same direction with a mass of people. We gathered at the top of the escalator and then all descended; we went through sundry revolving bars, which patted us on the back, as if we had just come back from a dangerous mission. In the urine-scented shade of the station, buses were lined up in perfect perspective, sucking in passengers through the front doors. A weather-beaten sign on a Coke machine read no working; a torn poster on the wall behind it announced the yesteryear arrival of a circus with a half grin of a hysterical clown and an erect elephant trunk holding a star on its tip. I had never taught anything in my life, let alone English, but despair was my loyal ally.
I put my hands in the jacket pockets: a couple of marbles, a taper of lint, a coin, a transfer. I remember this trivial handful because I can recall looking at an old black lady: a peppered coat, a bell hat, her knuckles coiled around a cane handle, leaning slightly forward. To be able to put your hands in your pockets, I thought, was not such a bad thing, your pockets are your hands' home.
There was a bench nobody was sitting on, encrusted with blotches. I looked up, and on a steel beam high up above perched a jury of pigeons, cooing peevishly. They bloated and deflated, blinking down on us, effortlessly releasing feces. When I was a kid, I thought that snow came from God shitting on us. The Touhy bus arrived, and we lined up at the bus door. I experienced an intense sneeze of happiness, simply because I had managed not to lose my transfer.
The bus smelled of an unknown disinfecting potion, a trace of sausagey sweat, and nondescript dust dryness. The jury of pigeons fluttered up as the bus moved forward, pressing us against our seats, until we all dutifully jerked forward. I used to have a friend--he was killed by an accelerating piece of shrapnel--who liked to think that there was a quiet part of the universe where a body could have a steady velocity, going in the same field. This bus, for instance, would have moved with smooth, pleasant velocity, down Touhy, not stopping at the lights, on to Lincolnwood, Park Ridge, Elk Grove Village, Schaumburg, Hanover Park, and onward through Iowa and whatever there was beyond Iowa, all the way to California, and then over the Pacific, gliding across the endless water until we reached Shanghai--we would have all got to know one another on this ship, we would have gone all the way together.
The bus stopped abruptly at Western, the driver honking violently, then glancing at us in the rearview mirror. A man crossed the street in front of the bus, carrying a rolled-up carpet, which was breaking on his shoulder, its ends touching the ground. The man was sagging under the burden, his neck bent, his knees stooping, as if he were carrying a weighty cross.
We moved on, passed Inner Light Hair Sanctuary, AutoZone PartsWorld, Wultan Monuments, Land of Submarines; crossed California, gliding by Barnaby & Scribner Family Dining, Mt. Sinai Medical Center, Eastern Style Pizza--I got off the bus across the street from a Chinese restaurant. New World, it was called, and it was empty, only a sign in the window saying for lease.
I had a few more minutes before the interview, and I was not ready to go in and get a job (How could I teach anyone anything?), so I lingered in front of the photo shop next to New World. A sign in the window--thick black letters--read:
old photos copied
black and white.
There was a photo of black-and-white miners, their eyes twinkling behind a mask of gray dust. They held their pickaxes solemnly, their helmets pressing down their faces. In another photo, three kids in knickers and jackets with sleeves that could not reach their wrists stood a step away from one another, with the same tenebrous eyes, shorn hair, and large ears spreading out like little wings.
There was a Before photo and an After photo: the Before photo showed a man with a long curly beard slowly swallowing his face and dark wrinkles above his murky eyes. He sat with his hands coiled in his lap. A younger man stood on his left, his right hand cautiously touching the old man's shoulder. The upper right-hand corner of the photo was missing, including half of the young man's yarmulke. Both men were cut by a jagged white line (the old man across his chest, the young man across his waist), with a trail of white blots spreading toward the old man's beard--a crease and its offspring, created in somebody's pocket. The After photo had no blots, had no crease, and the yarmulke was restored. Their faces were whiter, and the young man's hand firmly grasped the old man's shoulder--wherever they were now, they were in it together. If only I could afford to succumb to this depleting sorrow, to stop walking with my chin up, and just collapse, like a smashed box, things would be much simpler. There was a photo of the Lake-in-the-Hills Mall at night, all glaring neon blue, neon yellow, and neon pink.
Copyright © 2002 by Aleksandar Hemon