PREVIOUSLY: Atonwa, stowing away with the Seminole punks NMF, fights off some nagging bad dreams; napping on and off, he perks up long enough to hear a voice tell him he’s at the center, or at least somewhere within the central iris, of some sort of sinister frame-up; NMF’s members, implicated in the plot and reeling from a gear theft, build a raft and plot their revenge; Ket, Poppy and Herb reflect on recent bummers, Bob the cat gets upset and Georgia, rehearsing for an upcoming show, finds something weird in J.R.’s suitcase.
ILL TOMB ERA ch. 5
BY MARK IOSIFESCU
BY MARK IOSIFESCU
“Since I've started living out my dreams, since I've become the contemporary of the centuries to come, I no longer know death under the annihilating guise it has maintained in today's society. Only in my moments of deepest depression do I realize that in that world of swine into which I was born I shall be forced to die, just as out in the street I'm obliged to rub shoulders with priests and cops.”
– Ghérasim Luca, The Passive Vampire
An impossibly gentle predawn, so cozy seems like it’s always been nighttime, like there were never such thing as day. Stars wheel and flutter on puffs of wind or breath, turn and halfturn, inch nearer, fall back. Smells hover, mingle and set: soft rain, tropical ferns, dogwood and orchids, mint, baked tomatoes and carrots, half-empty beer cans, motor oil, potsmoke. The weather is hot and close, but a gentle breeze caresses. Moths flit lightward, swooping, dodging tendrils of fragrant stovetop flame and visible clouds of humidity. Mosquitoes congregate lazily on the kitchen ceiling or hang unimpressed in midair, upright, long legs limp in surrender at their sides. Infinite open space, warm and wet and inviting, drapes in for a big hug.
On the other side of the screened-in porch a severed car tire sloughs into the yard muck where it landed, attached piece of rear bumper and offroading dirtsplat caked into permanence on the worn-out rubber, all kind of reliquifying here as the rain falls. Bits of the vehicle can be spotted across the property: a fender chunk come to rest here against a wooden fencepost, the mangled passenger’s-side door over in this thicket of chain fern fronds, the front bumper crumpled around the trunk of the live oak out in the center of the yard. The exposed engine block is still smoking; coolant and gasoline, transmission and brake fluids are leaking everywhere. Snapshot of a kinetic episode, moments ago. A bad accident on the floodplain swamp.
Inside the house, the storm’s shadowplay is augmented on the cave wall by a heavy TV wash, image blown to indecipherability, details past parsing’s threshold but still ostensibly visible somewhere in the bright wave of tuned fuzz whose height, trough to crest, spills overtop and blasts colors to a monolithic whiteness, ringing harsh echo on the reflective drywall. Shorebreak on this old television set, also broken, rabbit-eared, plugged lazy via frayed threadbare cable, set atop a pile of musty towels on an ironing board. Nothing’s on and, anyway, nobody seems to be around to watch.
But there’s sound coming from the basement. Slicks of wall moisture are noticeably pulsing to a repetitive low-end rumble and the hallway fixtures, bulb filaments and loose wall screws keep rattler pace to the occasional complementary harmonic, a kick drum hit or low-ringing bass note coming up the stairs. The floorboards quake to attention, resettle, requake; even the forks and knives on the kitchen table vibrate slow migratory paths across the formica surface.
Soundcheck has ended, and downstairs, the stoner metal band Earthenware Virgin and Child is about to begin its set. There are maybe two dozen kids crowded into the sweaty space of the 800 square ft basement, some standing on the couches that ring the area’s perimeter, others sitting halfway dangled off those aforementioned stairs, each audience member taller than 6 ft obligingly ducking the low, dangerously-appointed ceiling whose rotting driftwood planks and occasional exposed screws and wires present a pretty real threat to the lankiest in the group and--electrical conductivity being what it is--to anybody else they might be touching. Most of the throng is crowding around the band, who’ve set up right in the middle of the floor, onlookers leaning on the tall cabinet amps for support, pushing their way right up to Angus Aragones at the guitar and leaving just enough room for his instrument cable and long chain of effects pedals to snake its way to the speakers, or else peering gawkily over Hank (real name Henrietta Palmer, just so we know where we’re at) on the drums. It is hot down here--airlessly, oppressively hot--and little particles of moisture are already beading out along the surface of the drumheads, to say nothing of the many tightly-packed bodies and associated sweat glands. But as Hank looks around, nods to her guitarist and wordlessly lifts the drumsticks above her head, everyone is keyed-in to the moment, psyched, ready, and so unconcerned. She begins the slowest, sludgiest four beat count-in imaginable--1 / 2 / 3 / 4--and when it ends, as she brings the sticks down on the first measure, in the terminal moment before the leadoff song begins, detail drops away. All attention in the house is swallowed, drawn instantly across the absolute threshold, the event horizon of experience. A shape begins to outline itself. Time does its thing.
By strict tick of the clock, the Earthenware set tonight lasts 44 minutes, comprising two, maybe three long-form song sections, depending really on whether you count that drum intro as a separate track or just a warm-up. Sometimes an audience member, nervously approaching in the post-show glow, will ask about structure--how the band members plan their performances, what quantity is predetermined and what’s improvised, how each knows when to stop, or to start, or to change. Do they practice? Hank doesn’t ever answer, and nowadays if Angus does, it’s only elliptically. It’s become clear, in lieu of any useless explanation, how much easier it is to couch one’s intentions in weedian euphemism: “No plan,” or “We stop when it’s over,” or “It’s all one thing,” that kind of line. It comes off as so much rock and roll bullshitting, obviously, though kids at shows seem to get into the apparent vagueness of such pronouncements, always nodding enthusiastically, taking corroborative sips of their beer, asking if the band has tapes or records for sale. But tonight is different. No one, in the moments following Hank’s final cymbal crash, makes a move for the ad-hoc stage area, or the merch table, or the upstairs. No one claps. Tonight the kids are stock still. Not necessarily a big deal; every audience has members who are more sensitive, more fantasy-prone, more apt to apply a directed sense of expectation to the proceedings. Chances are they’ve seen the band before, noted their effect, done some research, come prepared. There are little adepts springing up all along Earthenware Virgin and Child tour routes.
“You might imagine it as a doorway.” Angus’s earliest bit of instruction, freshly wrought symbol on a scrap of repurposed paper in front of him. A loose oval, an egg shape, painted in darkened purple. To be pondered, fixed on with concentration, stared at wordlessly, revivified in the incorruptible space of one’s steadfast attention before being carefully transposed in its tiniest aspect, its subtlest metaphoric iteration, onto a field of whiteness, unified with its complementary color component and enlarged, slowly, to greater and greater statures: to the size of a key; to the size of a knob; to the size of a door. “Carefully look over the door in your imagination,” his hands up, fingers outstretched, unwitting, unplanned. It was sunrise. “Now open the door.” And he stepped through into color: shapeless cloud of blue, long hooks of deep orange, swirling wormlike protrusions, maybe even a clean silver outline--scallop-edged, cylindrical and acutely reflective--that resolved vaguely into a shape of real-world correspondence, a form, a material, a vestment, an evening dress and maybe even, yes, its wearer: tall, gaunt, hazy features marked by black, by thickly caked, garish black makeup. The glowing pandrogyne. Their first invocation.
“Black,” that same first day of instruction, Hank drilling him on the operative symbols, her back turned in the dim space of her country bedroom. “World’s night rolling onto world’s night, a goddess in destructive aspect, swallowing colors as she swallows forms but always luminous when she can be definitely observed, always gleaming.” She was on the other side of the window, silhouetted just beyond the illuminated space of the slat-lit air, faded, faraway, but defined: what he saw was her shape, her rigidity, wrestled-down to a point of absolute control; her fixed, tight posture, steadfast tone of voice. Spirit coiled like a whip, like a rattlesnake. Her power.
“Picture it.” Angus had had to superimpose the symbols, steady, using the same infinite care with which he conceived the doorway. “Do you see it?” In his clearest, most irreducible imaginative state, the dark shapes were blotted by the contours of the black layers onto which they were applied. Hank began to turn to face him, slow, tightly clipped, the gleam off the windowglass spilling onto her side: lighting right shoulder, then right hip, creeping along the pale curve of her and moving slowly, very slowly, inward. “No dark space,” emerging, all resplendence, all flowing, “no conditions of light in the physical world,” gliding, radiant, closer, “can obscure black.”
Her manner was intense, methodic. Cruel, often enough. So was the magic she was teaching him; cruel, or at least indifferent, uninterested in showing itself, all but imperceptible when effected as rote ritual or hollow diversion, apt to up and vanish on you if you ever found yourself thinking of it as an aimable, directed tool, a means of achieving something. In the same way he sometimes caught himself thinking of her--a detail, her hands, a yellow strand of hair, the restrained ball-turn of her shoulder through the skin--as something knowable, something he could really see all of; he’d try, and instead just lose her entirely. Their work was the same. It was a mode of conception, a language for naming, for beginning to name, what was there, what had been waiting there, in untroubled latency. It was exhilarating, freeing; and if it was painful, it was only the pain of having pretended, of having coasted on wrongheaded assumptions, of having been without her and her guiding touch for so long.
The new thinking wormed its way into everything, to the point that he began to have trouble--or maybe just sort of stopped bothering--distinguishing waking reality from dream. A conditional space had opened, and every lived moment now passed through it, existing in tantalizing suspension before sliding, down, into one pat realm or another. Still, nothing really landed, not if landing denoted consequence, permanence. All his inherited definitions were shot for good: a verifiable, sensed experience would turn out to be nothing more than an idle thought. A wholly mental exercise would manifest physical effects. Memories would come back to him, their origin and provenance a complete mystery; had it happened to him or to someone else? Was it past or future? Had he lived it or had he dreamt it?
Angus began regarding everything and everyone as a possible figment--or, not a figment, actually, more like a function--of his subconscious, applicable to the strictures of waking life on a sliding scale. Nothing too dramatic; he understood that just as the old, blandly physical world operated according to laws, so did this new one, and so he didn’t feel any great urge to, say, jump off a building and try to fly. But strangers, friends, roommates--when Hank started teaching him, he was living at a crummy squat in town--people claiming to know or be related to him: all came to Angus from within this thickly folded conditional space out of which they could cut either way, and every perceptible moment brought with it this announcement, this gentlest even-toned murmur that said “Not so fast,” that warned against its own believability, that said it was all part of a larger, less fixable order. Soon all talk of dreams and wakefulness, of hallucination and reality, was moot, academic. It was all one thing.
No doubt it was what made their band so good. The music--and the recordings, performances and traveling that were its expression--began quickly to take on this same widening of definability, this same unyielding charge. The conjuring ground became the studio, the stage. Touring, already an exercise in schizoid cognition--wherein you wake up in unfamiliar rooms full of unfamiliar people from unfamiliar towns who all seem to know you--actually hereabouts turned into something resembling a movie, or a sitcom, or a cartoon flipbook: a continuing series of discrete adventures in which Angus, though technically a participant, was much more a passive observer, watching Hank and himself from the sideline vantage of a fly-on-the-wall, third person tip.
He remembers--or, heh, dreamed, or anyway, seems to have observed--one such sitcom scene, another anonymous morning at another anonymous punkhouse though, for all the archetypal feel, loads of specifics still beckoned: some den or TV room, stacked trays of dirty dishes, empty bottles and half-drunk tallboys--what frat dudes call “fallen soldiers”--piled up at odd angles and more often than not cantilevering vertiginously over the edge of this shabby old coffee table, little snatches of defacement, nicknames, insults, ________ WAS HEREs, crude dick-and-balls drawings keyed into the woodgrain over the years, all this in addition to the band stickers, desiccated lumps of old gum, show fliers, guitar picks--generic component pieces of a whole punker’s trompe l’oeil display, really, all stacked up one on top of the other, layered geologic strata that still managed to offer everything for direct perusal on an individual basis, nothing hidden or covered up. Kind of a sinister edge to the arrangement, or this was Angus’ take, anyway, when he seemed to come to--facing the TV on a low plaid cushion-shorn couch, cocooned in a sleeping bag, curled up, actually sort of half-bent, hard-angled in awkward orthogonality. No particular urge to understand where in physical space he was, he opted to just take a look at the TV set, in whose gleaming lens he caught a glimpse of his own reflection: matted, greasy hair; bleary stoned eyes; an inverse couchprint mapped across his cheek. The idea, if he had to guess, being that he’d been dozing in front of the TV for a while now, and should probably get back to it.
Which he was all set to do, except just then in came these faraway giggles, sounds of excited conversation from outside, first faint, then louder. It was coming from a couple of unknown oogles, ripped up bleached gear on, combat boots kicking open the bottom part of the half-torn screendoor, beaded rat-tails clanging against a cupboard, open-shut woodclop of a pantry grip, vacuum snap of a crinkly chip bag being opened. The whole symphonic bit. Maybe this was their house, maybe they were just hanging, but either way they were in a cozy enough mood to flip on the TV, step hastily over Angus’ sleeping form and take seats on the couch’s unvarnished wooden armrests, chewing with open mouths and shushing each other.
“It’s been on for like,” Oogle 1 whispering though still appreciably loud, “we missed like half of it already.”
“Shh who cares?” Oogle 2 wiping some nacho cheese on Angus’ green nylon sleeping bag shell.
“What is this commercial?” On the TV, a man and a small child could be seen in hunting regalia, holding up rifles and tracking a baby deer in their sights.
“It’s hunting--it’s for a hunting equipment thing, a store or something.” Angus was kind of half-slitting it, eyeing the screen but keeping things squinty enough that he could pretend to be asleep should that prove a better policy. In the commercial, the child took a shot, and the deer dropped.
“This kid is sick. He’s an amazing hunter.” The man high-fived the child, and the image froze before slowly fading out.
“I wonder if we should clean up? It’s nasty in here, show was like three days ago,” which answered one of Angus’ dissociative ponderances, namely What relation does this house bear to my band, or to my tour, or to me? He went ahead and let his eyes enjoy their full dynamic range. The main program was coming back on.
“Shh, shh, it’s on.”
“Turn it up a little.”
“There’s no--I can’t find the remote. Shh.”
On the screen, a red curtain appeared and a lush orchestral theme came swelling in the background as the program’s title, rendered in gaudy, old-fashioned silvery calligraphic type, slowly slid into focus atop the velvet: “My Lacuna”. The title card faded, and an announcer in a tuxedo--flickering a bit, seeming to blend and unblend with the background from frame to frame--stepped onto a bare stage, lifted an old RCA ribbon mic, oriented himself toward the camera, and made with a big smile.
“Welcome back. In our next story, a teacher presents her students with a very typical lesson--but gets some very atypical results!”
A dreamy harp glissando marked the scene transition, and the setting shifted to a classically-appointed approximation of a gradeschool classroom--map of the world, cursive letter chart, shiny chemistry set.
“What is this?” Angus ventured. “What show is this?”
The oogles ignored him. On the screen, a teacher in a plain smock dress and a high bouffant was handing out worksheets to a group of kids, probably eight or nine years old, clean-cut at orderly rows of desks, all with the same sort of geewhiz, Mayberried-out look to them.
“But Mrs. Cyclamen,” as a hand shot up from one of the students, a buzzcut, pug-faced little dude with buckteeth, “you forgot to give Sandy her dictation sheet.”
It was true; as the camera panned up to the little girl playing Sandy--meek, skinny in overalls and this shock of, yeah, blonde hair--it stopped to linger on her empty desk.
“Is that--Hank?” if the oogles heard him, they didn’t show it, but, having found the remote (it’d been inches from Angus’ sleeping bagged foot, tucked into an interior couch edge), one of them did turn up the volume a bit.
“You’re right, Bobby,” Mrs. Cyclamen with an obliging smile, “except I didn’t forget anything. Since Sandy scored the highest on last week’s spelling test, she isn’t going to be doing the dictation at all. Instead, she’s going to be giving it!”
Every kid suddenly turned to look at this Sandy, who just sort of stared down, fidgeting with a pencil, giving a slow shake of her pigtails. The others, oohing at the refusal, pivoted back to Mrs. Cyclamen.
“Now, Sandy,” a firmer edge to the teacherly tone, “if you’d rather explain to the principal why you didn’t listen to your instructor, that can certainly be arranged too!”
The oogles chuckled a bit as, onscreen, a previously-unheard studio audience erupted in hysterics. After pausing for the laugh, Sandy swallowed, stood up and held a hesitant hand out for the teacher’s master sheet. Mrs. Cyclamen handed it over, flashed a pencils up gesture at the other students, and took a seat at the vacated desk.
“Damn,” Oogle 2 whispered, “I wonder what’s gonna happen.”
“Shh. Just watch.”
A subtle sort of high buzz had kicked up on the soundtrack. “Do you guys--” though Angus knew by now that he’d be getting no response, “do you hear that?”
“‘There’...” as Sandy, shaky-voiced and tentative, she started to read from the sheet, “‘are’...” and the camera panned over the other kids, scratching away with their pencils over this growing buzzing, “‘many’...” over to Mrs. Cyclamen’s approving smirk, “‘gods.’ Colon.”
“Whoa,” slackjawed from Oogle 1.
“‘There are many gods.’ Colon. ‘The ones’...” scritch-scratch drowning out as the higher-pitched sound kept rising, “‘you meet’... ‘above’... comma,” as Sandy took a longer pause here than normal, looking over at the teacher and getting a little go on nod, “‘and the ones... you meet... below’--look,” turning to face the camera with a sudden terror, “this is, this isn’t a show, this is real--” and the high buzz overtook her voice before the film seemed to burn, the image cut to white and the sound dropped out, leaving a low ringing aftereffect and a blank screen.
“I don’t--is this part of it?” The oogles just sat in silent expectation, ignoring Angus.
Just as suddenly, the picture returned. The scene was the same, except there was a new actress playing Sandy: same clothes, same hair, but the hesitant look was gone, replaced with a knowing, coyly performative little girl grin.
“Did you all get that?” Mrs. Cyclamen wanted to know of her students. “Any questions? Sandy?”
“Just one,” as new Sandy fixed on the camera, did a little hair flip and held for the punchline: “Next time, can someone else score highest on the spelling test?”
The characters, the studio audience and the two oogles began roaring with laughter, and the soundtrack was overwhelmed with applause.
“Called it,” Oogle 2 between sips of an old beer.
“Before, when we were talking about it, well I didn’t--I mean I didn’t call it out loud but I knew they were gonna do a twist.”
Onscreen, the actors stood up to take their bows and blew kisses into the crowd as the curtain fell. “Yeah right; you had no idea what was gonna happen.”
“I know, that’s how come I knew it would be a twist. I knew that they’d do a twist; I called that.” The applause continued as the announcer stepped back out in front and gave a couple of bows.
“You didn’t call, or know anything. You thought something, maybe, if that.” The announcer pointed out to the audience and clasped his hands in mock thanks, bowing again. Flowers were being thrown up from the audience and snatched off the floor by quick-moving stagehands.
“My actions showed that I knew,” this oogle bicker sesh still going as the camera swiveled out to the audience, whose members were up on their feet giving a standing ovation. As the shot panned across the studio, of course Angus saw it: a vision of himself, harshly lit in a suit and tie, sweaty off of the hot gel lights, smiling broad across the lurching broadcast framerate, applauding effusively.
And as he woke--or next came to, or clicked back into awareness--it was without a signaling jolt, without any particular demarcation of renewed safety, just a slow superposing of another layer of being, fitted loosely overtop the old one, and, well, seemed it had been her making that high-pitched sound, his girl Hank, back at home, the two of them, no grimy punkhouse at all but here, in bed, with her vibrating next to him; a high nervy whine, louder and softer, coursing oscillation peaked against the scratching of the pencils in the classroom, the timid-voice of the actress reading the dictation but with this breathy, voluptuous component that hadn’t transferred into the scene, this heaving sigh and Hank pulling on the bedsheets, running hands over herself in blind somnolence, sliding legs, rubbing arch and nape against his adjoining form.
“Where’d you go?” in a whisper. She almost never asked him.
“I’m not sure. We were on tour.”
“I was there?”
He nodded into the hollow of her shoulder, ear pressed to the low moan of her breathing. “I think. You were a little girl.”
She craned to face him and the sound sharpened--a diaphragmatic, gut sound, her muscles verifiably tensing along his side as she moved, skin alive with impossible heat--a forceful shaping there in the dark, that charge being borne willful across all unbridgeable space through to the den, to the TV, to the classroom, to the voice, to the faces he knew were still watching them. Whatever wall of myth, meant to separate dream from incarnate truth, to section it off from flesh, to attenuate the soft curve of joy against strength, against force of imagination, was gone, and her eyes, when he chanced to look, had gone abyss, pointedly white, staring out to void.
Later she told him his had too. Soon he was looking up during their sets into the faces of kids in the crowd and noting that their eyes were doing the same thing. Or looking down at his hands on the guitar to find them playing perfect licks he’d never learned. Or gazing out into the space of the venue, into humid conditional space, and seeing shapes, colors, forms all obligingly, effortlessly surrounding. The stage, the basement, their summoning ground. The Earthenware Virgin and Child, their gleaming evocations and their amp-warped, time-freed adherents.
The wrecked car out back--the Earthenware tour steed, a custom agglomerate best described as an upgraded Moskvich 412, though that hardly begins to cover it--has had a long and fruitful second life, and we needn’t mourn too hard on its behalf. Its route down to Mobile has been a woefully circuitous one, and in all likelihood it’s just glad to have done with the hassle. Once an exceedingly rusty old number from the early 80s found tagless and fancy free in a rainlogged salvage yard in East Berlin, it bounced around scrap movers for a few years, narrowly avoided the crusher more than once, and eventually turned up in “Der Verrückte Mechaniker,” a repair shop in the Wedding district whose name and slogan--“Ein bisschen verrückt muss man schon sein, um ein Auto zu lieben”--underscored its general business strategy, which was to distinguish itself by cultivating a reputation for mental illness. This meant enthusiastically undertaking outwardly impossible repair jobs, resuscitating wheezing old clunkers, rigging up workarounds to cheat government inspections and emissions standards, stealing rare parts from other garages, and so on. The shop was run by a large Romanian expat family whose members maintained an especially frenzied air when on the clock--the better to befit their establishment’s branding tack--and were always shouting at each other in front of customers, flying into rages, and publicly smashing things. The owner and lead Verrückte was a bug-eyed and wild-haired mechanic called Crazy Radu whose five sons worked on intakes, spot repairs and scrap runs, while he kept an eye on the business end, delegated projects and, once in a while, dove headlong into the sort of repair which, despite baldly defying logical and financial sense, would occasionally pay off huge dividends on some other, less quantifiable level.
Radu really did love cars, and having owned the shop in the early years after reunification, he’d grown used to servicing the different sorts of Eastern Bloc makes that had come streaming, in the early 90s, over the newly-opened border: janky Czechoslovakian Škodas, Romanian Dacias and, most especially, Trabant 601s, those ubiquitous East German heaps whose finicky two-cycle engines basically made them fume-belching, breakdown-prone 4-wheeled motorbikes, or, maybe more charitably, lawnmowers with doors. In fact, one of the shop’s early breakthroughs had been its policy of pinching Trabi parts from all competing sources (cornering the market on repairs in the unified capital and jacking the prices as supply dwindled), though a recent 2,500-Euro government scrapping bonus offered on the egregious pollutant vehicles had sort of put a pin in that. Another Trabant scheme had consisted of stripping the cars’ plastic body panels which, being made of Micarta (aka Duroplast, cotton fabrics impregnated with phenolic resins from Soviet factories), were actually considerably stronger than steel and impervious to dents and rust. More importantly, though, these Leukoplast-bombe bodies had become fetish objects for nostalgic East Berliners, in whose memories the cars were transformed from maddening junkheaps--markers of lives spent among industrial runoff--into fun, scrappy cult commodities. It is now mostly remembered as a joke, but at the time most everyone really did think those body panels were made of some kind of cardboard, and worry that exposing them to too much heat would cause them to go up in flames; they really did spend hours removing air filters and blowing on spark plugs when the carburetor reliably flooded, or push-starting stalled cars downhill and running themselves over; they even sat on waiting lists, often for years, for the privilege of puttering around in a new, rattling 601. Still and all, the Wall fell, the mania took hold, and even today, little white Trabants dot the Berlin streets, inspiring countless whistles of recognition even as they dependably spew their black smoke, often enough in a mechanic’s face.
And to be clear, Crazy Radu himself could be prone to making the same sorts of logical allowances for the sake of wistful reminiscence. Cars just worked on him that way, as portals to vast universes of involuntary memory as directly effective as any tea-dipped madeleine. He experienced certain models via intoxicating synesthetic flashes--snatches of music, specific tastes and smells, unexplainable fireworks of color when he heard a given engine rev, even noticeable physical effects that we need not go into here. But there was a deeper layer. Years in the conditioning lab of the garage combined with a lifetime spent among vehicles of every stripe had by now lent his work such a deeply idiosyncratic dimension that even he couldn’t explain why he made the repairs he did. Though the shop’s customer base loved it, Radu’s kids weren’t sure to what degree the “crazy mechanic” vibes were a put-on, theorizing instead that they provided a useful cover for what was in fact a genuine insane streak in their father’s behavior. Radu whispered lovingly to Renault engine blocks in halting, decades-removed high school French. He busted out laughing at what he claimed were hysterically funny engineering jokes intentionally hidden in certain brakepad designs. He insisted that particular cars “wanted” specific work done for which there was no mechanical evidence. He regularly slept in the shop, often on his creeper cart wheeled all the way beneath one or another rusty jalopy; his sons, who’d long ago resigned themselves to this as to his other antics, just wheeled him out when it was time to open, steeling themselves for another day of acting as deranged as this old man seemed actually to’ve become.
And though he often loudly insisted that such direct or obvious linkages played no role whatsoever in his process, it was plain to see that Crazy Radu had particular emotional ties to the cars of his youth. On the morning that Dragoș, his youngest, wheeled the broken-down Moskvich into the lot, he woke with a start beneath a Wartburg 353 decommissioned police wagon--dinging his forehead on the front bumper and sending the creeper cart careening into a rack of jack stands--and immediately ran outside, in a grease-stained A-frame and tighty-whities, tears already forming at the corners of his groggy-eyed gaze as, in front of a rapidly-forming queue of morning customers, he actually fell to his knees in exaltation.
He had, at the age of 25, watched as his own Moskvich 412 was smashed to pieces in the big 1977 Vrancea earthquake that decimated Bucharest, and while he had ever since retained, sure, something of a soft spot for the old compacts, he had never before noted the searing feeling of recognition coursing through him now, an all-over bodily effect, some field resonating harmonically with a deep-seated and long-disregarded store of memories suddenly kicked into frantic activity, all abuzz, scores of tiny voices telling him this was it--not the same model, not a comparable specimen, but it. In some real, undefinable way, this was his car. He immediately called off every other job, sent his sons home for the day, and shuttered the storefront. In a wholly unprecedented move, he referred his backlog of work to rival garages, which bizarre gesture, combined with his uncharacteristically calm demeanor over the phone, made Andreas Unger at “Automania” across town assume he’d been the victim of a prank call. When the garage was clear, Radu got to work.
The whole thing took two weeks of manic, round-the-clock activity. Radu transplanted a Mazda Z-engine under the hood, which he also replaced along with the fenders, doors and body panels themselves (none of that Trabi Bakelite either; old Moskvichs were loaded down with steel, and that’s the way this one would stay). Painted the whole thing in factory “ivory,” really just beige, reinforced the subframe and replaced all shocks and springs, snaked a tube and rudder from a similar model off of a crosstown competitor, and fashioned the instrument panel from various trashed odo-, tach- and speedometers. When everything ran well and looked alright, he made with a showy unveiling for the benefit of his poor kids--who’d been on indefinite leave from work this whole time--and their wives and children.
“Cool,” from his cellphone-toting 10-year-old granddaughter Hanna as Radu dramatically whipped the tarp off of the gleaming, waxed machine, “aber hat es auch einen MP3-Player?”
Radu’s sons had bigger concerns. The shop’s finances had never exactly been the picture of stability, and private questioning on the wisdom of closing up for a period of weeks to work on a single car of dubious resale value had given way, these last few days, to more decisive action. If the car wasn’t sold in the next month--was the gist of their ultimatum--they were all quitting.
Garage fumes or else something else lending a certain teary-eyed gleam to his expression, Crazy Radu made with a sober nod, clocked firmly the real concern on the faces of the five sons who had followed him into this foolish business. He offered them a grease-stained palm. “Hand drauf,” meaning ‘let’s shake on it.’
But wouldn’t you know it, Radu’s confidence wasn’t misplaced. In fact, that the car should be resold quickly and lucratively--not a month but just a day or two later--could have been, looking back on it, the only logical conclusion to the manic Moskvich quest. A confirmation, maybe, that his recent behavior was outwardly ordained, dictated by an external intelligence, set in motion with an agenda unknowable and all its own, Radu here just a conduit. Best explanation, anyway, for how the sudden and desperate desire to refurbish this vehicle was met, one or two days after its completion, by a mysterious buyer whose go-between had said just enough to ensure that the Moskvich was the car being sought. It hadn’t even hit the showroom; how could the buyer have known about it? Had someone at the garage been talking? Was another party snooping around? More sinister yet, could the car have been sent to Radu with just this result in mind? Or was all this second-guessing, heh, just a touch of the old Verrücktheit? No matter; point is, when the call came in, Radu wasn’t surprised.
“My client is an American, a collector of Communist Bloc automobiles,” breathy reed-thin voice on the line, ‘UNKNOWN NUMBER’ on the caller ID readout, natch.
Radu’s English was good, but a momentary fluster came over him just the same. He took a breath. “Well, we see many luxury models from that time--” dangling some alternatives though, feeling at this negotiation’s unspoken contours, he swore he could already tell where it was going--”Tatras for example? Or we could find you perhaps a Volga GAZ?”
The voice let out a tight, clipped laugh. “My client would prefer something more working-class.”
Radu grinned at the confirmation, though there was a sour undertaste in it. “I have maybe a Soviet model or two in stock.”
“We intend for the car to be exported to and driven in the United States. We can secure the necessary paperwork. A representative will be sent to your establishment. The vehicle must be fully functional.”
A beat. “Something restored?”
They made an appointment for late that night, after regular hours. The shop’s mysterious closure and reopening having stoked widespread curiosity in the neighborhood, business had been booming the last few days, so there were loads of cars on the premises again, whether in for repairs, quick salvage jobs or restorations. Most everything was covered up with a tarpaulin when, stepping through the Mechaniker’s front door into full fluorescent radiance of the overnight wall lamps, the point man finally showed up.
Radu, having detected a certain mustache-twirling lilt to things on the phone, was expecting some kind of spy movie villain or Dr. Mabuse type; a tuxedoed, vampire-caped deal, or at least a trenchcoat, mysterious briefcase, something. Looking over the “representative” who’d actually appeared before him, then, Radu tried not to let his disappointment show: it was a sweatshirted, baseball-cap-wearing, utterly generic youth of about 25, toting a university-branded backpack and a bottle of orange Schwip Schwap. He could’ve been one of any of the untold hordes of collegiate arrivals down from London or Canada or the States, the thrilled new Berliners that now clogged late night U-Bahn platforms, techno clubs, organic markets and, just as often, Radu’s shop, gratingly insisting on repairs to perfect vehicles for which they had neither intuitive feeling nor mechanical knowledge and, thus, no right to drive. Service employees of every stripe had been dealing with these entitled shits since Berlin’s reputation for cheap and easy party-oriented living had lent the poor old capital enough glamorous cachet to put it squarely in the path of massive tourist and gentrification waves, meaning this aspect of life in the new Germany was by now more than fully old news, and everyone had had about enough. So when the clincher came--as the young man cleared his throat and, in a polite Midwest American register, asked for “Rad-oo”--the deflation of spirit that seized our humble mechanic was practically audible.
“Yes I Radu, how I can help you.” He sometimes put on this no-English act for the tourists, dialing up the Slavic resonants, bit of code-switching he found helpful for getting out of tedious explanations or nipping disadvantageous haggles in the bud.
The stranger didn’t miss a beat. “Hai sa o intoarcem pe Românește?”
Okay, so here was a wrinkle. “You know Romanian?”
He knew cars, too, as it turned out. Introduced himself as Lindh Steinberg, “Outreach Officer”--as this thick black business card had it--for Opal Media LLC, a multimedia organization based in New York that represented publishers, galleries, record labels. ‘Outreach’ being a worldwide effort these days and languages having always come easy to him, Lindh explained, he’d managed to build up a decent command of the major Romance tongues as well as a slew of Germanics. A little bit of Russian, too, but they had a different guy on staff for that.
“But what this has to do with the Moskvich,” Radu blurted out, regretting that last word immediately. Why mention a specific make? They had kept things suitably vague on the phone; the identity of the vehicle was the only leverage he’d had. Now he’d never know how much they’d known beforehand.
But if the info was new or surprising to Lindh, he had a funny way of showing it. “One of our musicians, a band actually, wants it,” he shrugged, leveling--or appearing to level--with Radu in a way that, in spite of lingering suspicions, had its disarming effect.
Before Radu knew it, the tarp had been lifted and he’d proceeded, in full salesman mode, to lovingly show off the vehicle’s rebuilt engine and modern features. Lindh’s questions--had Radu swapped out the old oil filter for a leak-proof type? Had he reinforced the axels after the engine rebuild?--betrayed what was either a carefully-studied or honestly-arrived-at knowledge of Soviet automobile design. But which was it? And why should some American kid know, or care, about this stuff in the first place?
“But the man on the phone,” Radu’s eyes locked on the camshaft so as not to betray any emotion besides the usual vehicular ardor, “he said the car was for a collector, not musician.”
“The buyer is the band’s manager,” Lindh nodding, affect flat, “or rather, it’s Opal, making the purchase on the manager’s behalf.” The musicians in question, he explained, wanted the car for photoshoots, record covers, music videos, after which it’d belong to this manager figure, who was a collector and archivist, and who’d probably been the one to plant the idea in the musicians’ heads to begin with.
“Who was the man on the phone?”
“My boss. One of our directors back in the States.” That shrug again, as if it were all uninteresting, impertinent detail.
A clock hung over the window. It was an old BMW novelty gift someone’d managed to snap up in a city junk shop and present to the family at the Mechaniker, a promotion for the aborted 507 convertible. The long hand ended in a cardboard cutout of the little sportscar, and watching it glide the circumference of the clock’s face had long figured as a a solid way to make any auto-manipulator in the area fall into a light trance. Now Radu chanced a quick look. It was midnight. “Why this band wants a Moskvich?”
Lindh smiled and took off his large black Jansport, which he’d been wearing, absurdly, since he’d come in. Unzipped it and pulled out a large flat object at which Crazy Radu, carefully studying the gleaming carburetor to fight off an emergent, improbable case of nerves, only permitted himself the subtlest peripheral glance.
“Hey, psst,” Lindh picking up on the energy, “It won’t bite.”
He didn’t want to look, but at some length and effort, feeling stupid, he did. It was an old LP cover, weathered, scuffed at the corners and, most notably, layered with a few generations of handwritten pen markings, notes, scribblings, symbols, extending across the top in black marker. Nothing he recognized, but the LP itself was another story.
“It’s their favorite,” Lindh explained. “They wanted to recreate the cover, original thinkers that they are.”
The first and only album by a group called Kustom Kar Kommandos, this self-titled number here had been one of those one-copy-per-city, breathlessly-traded records that sometimes managed to sweep the Romania of Radu’s youth, thanks to some intrepid soul who’d manage to smuggle them in--himself, in this case. The country wasn’t exactly known for its rock’n’roll pedigree, and Western tunes were scarcely heard on the radio or seen in stores, but every so often, something managed to slip by, become an object of feverish whispering, spend a few days on every turntable in town and then vanish as quickly as it had come. Radu hadn’t seen the album, whose sun-bleached cover image depicted the wreck of a beige Moskvich 412 in an anonymous Central European field, since he’d handed his copy over to his brother three decades earlier.
“So what do you think?” While Radu had been gawking at the record, Lindh had scribbled his offer on the backside of a promotional oil change flier and slid it over. “Deal?”
Radu, in a kind of daze, noted blankly to himself that the sum was enough to pay a year of overhead for the entire garage. “How... does this American band sound like?”
Lindh thought for a second. “Do you like Sabbath?”
Nobody had been sure where Kustom Kar Kommandos was from, though one suspected America. Still, all the songs on the record were instrumentals, meaning clues couldn’t be gleaned from careful analysis of the vocals, and the LP sleeve had no identifying information whatsoever. Later generations of rock and roll obsessives would link the band’s name to a 1965 Kenneth Anger short film that screened briefly in LA and Paris, as well as once on late-night TV in Finland, certainly never appearing East of the Berlin Wall. And in any case, none of this was known then, making of the band’s name a tantalizing cipher, a blankness eminently imprintable with worlds of meaning that seemed to fall just beyond the ken of the strict Eastern Bloc mindsets that encountered it.
Thus Carmina’s whole obsessive take on things. She had never even been much for music; certainly not the kind of committee-sanctioned populist folk-dance thing they had her playing at work between government news bulletins. Everyone else in her department at the state radio office had seemed to maintain, when it came to what was broadcast, a sort of practiced distance, a clear sense of detachment tempered with the knowledge of just when to show a bit of enthusiasm, usually when bosses were around. Of course such psychic bifurcations exacted a toll: in the private space of one’s own head, critical faculties were assumed to be operating normally, but since--in order to get to the outside--they had to pass through a set of carefully-calibrated filters, that assumption had become, at this point, more of a wild guess. Folks had gotten used to the mental gymnastics. Carmina suspected that most people never gave it any thought--as indeed she hardly did herself anymore, having come to see, in light of more immutable facts of physiology, of illness, how moot and variable it all really was. But whatever her degree of willful disinterest, her sense for everyday superficialities had always been sharp. She knew enough to know, in other words, that one was obliged to demonstrate some light pride in one’s work from time to time, and to do so in the same tired, manifestly inauthentic tone everyone had agreed on for voicing, say, belief in God, or fealty to the Party. And understanding this fully, Carmina had, it was true, begun to ignore it all the same.
“You’re gonna get fired, Pam,” from her work friend Marga again, quiet but slow, insistent, one day at their shared desk. “They’re going to run you out of Southfork.”
“Fired? Me?” Carmina feigning total shock. “No, Sue-Ellen,” fluttering her eyelashes with dramatic, TV-star flair. “No, I think I’ll be fine.”
They joked like this. Marga had long been convinced that every man in the office was in love with Carmina, and was constantly drawing her attention to the furtive smiles and enticed looks directed her way from coworkers, bosses, visiting repairmen, whomever. Carmina, who detected in each of these admirers that same strand of bored obedience, always pretended to be shy. As for the Pam / Sue-Ellen business, you can thank the American television production Dallas, which had been airing every Saturday night for the last year and had captured the obsessive attentions of seemingly every living soul in the capital.
“Pupazan was looking at you again today. While he drank his coffee.”
“I have no doubt,” more of the faux-Texan lilt, though this time it caught in Carmina’s throat a bit, the familiar pain in her gut issuing a sympathetic throb. Domnul Pupazan did look at her a lot, his regard steely, hard-set, jawing absently, tiny neck veins coming in and out of relief. The head of their department, he reported directly to their assigned Party Secretary, the special liaison from the station to the Ideology, Political and Cultural Activities, and Social Education Committee, and was a man who--in view of the pains most petty functionaries took to present themselves as humble workers--accounted for something of an anomaly: coming to the office every day in a different garishly-colored suit, sporting gold watches and Italian leather shoes, loudly grumbling about how difficult it had been to track down a private seller for his wife’s new fur or his suspicions that his maid was stealing from him, that kind of thing. This all during times of heat and hot water rationing, of daily brownouts, of hourlong milk lines for everyone else. He had slick hair, a short, well-manicured black beard, and gleaming, harshly reflective white teeth. He exuded a kind of severeness that made no sense to Carmina, being, it seemed, woefully disproportionate to his actual position in government. Which contradiction cast his behavior and appearance, his strange astringencies, out of your typical “stern boss” realm and into some other, more directly-motivated light. That, and the fact that her symptoms had begun steadily worsening on the precise day she’d started working for him.
“Are you a Party member?” he’d asked her then, the two of them in his office, Italian leather heel tapping rhythmically on the scuffed linoleum and a patently artificial inquisitiveness to his look. Her paperwork was open on his desk; he’d already have known the answer.
“No Tovarase, not yet.” She wore a black dress and jacket borrowed the night before from her cousin Vanda. “But why dress up?” she’d asked, as Vanda rummaged through closets looking for something that’d fit, wire hangers skidding screechily across rusty wardrobe rods as she slapped them out of the way. “It’s just a boring office.”
Vanda, who had met her new husband Cristian after beginning work at the University, had turned to her with a look of wild exasperation. “You like living here? Want to do it until you’re dead? You need to look good so someone will fuck you! ‘Why dress up’...”
“Oh, but you should join. We need women,” Pupazan with this eye contact, holding on her a beat too long before lowering his gaze back down to the paper. “Not married. You live with your parents?” Again, he was pretending not to know the answer.
“With my cousin, and her husband.”
“Ah yes, the professor,” doing away with the no-prior-knowledge pretense and making with the faintest of smiles, really more of a lip curl, exposing a speck of the glaring whiteness beneath, all adding up to an implication denoting, roughly, ‘Ah yes, the intellectual, the elitist, the subversive...’ But then, before Carmina could be sure she’d seen it, a shift: “I hear he’s a good man, and a fine scientist,” Pupazan’s face having rigidly recomposed itself. “Intelligent. An asset to the education of our youth.”
Carmina was careful not to register a reaction. It was difficult, when it came to this kind of talk, to trust one’s own senses. On the one hand, fanatic Party loyalists were known sometimes to feign the slightest of anti-worker positions and, for the purposes of identifying traitors in their midst, listen for whomever seemed to agree the loudest; on the other hand, pretty much everyone did engage in this kind of sloganeering more or less in earnest, always using the same oblique language, vague applications of friendly worker’s camaraderie intended to rehabilitate tense relations with any number of regular targets--intellectuals, Hungarians, Soviets, Jews, whatever happened to fit the mood or get a nod of approval from the listener. It was the equivalent of commenting on the weather; impossible to say whether any real information was actually being exchanged. Such conversations seemed to exist in a sort of shared space wherein specifics didn’t really matter, a zone of semantic freefloating, of special relativity, which is what Cristian taught at the University. Except this was just a place where everybody had a right to his own opinion, his own ignorance, his own version of reality. Pervasive, universally applicable, impossible to contradict. A complete reconstitution of existence. A continuum of meaninglessness.
“Idiot. He was asking for information,” Vanda under her breath at the bar that night, after Carmina told her of the encounter with Pupazan. “To report on Cristian. What did you tell him?”
“Report on him how?”
“Shh!” even giving her a kick under the table. “I mean it,” whispering now, though it was coming out like a hiss, “what did you say?”
Carmina shrugged. “I didn’t say anything. Or maybe I agreed, I can’t remember, ‘Yes Tovarase, anything for you Tovarase, do you like my dress Tovarase, will you marry me Tovarase, isn’t that the script we agreed on?”
Vanda took a second, staring at her beer.
“Listen for once. You think you have all these great choices? You think they are yours to make?” She gestured about the bar, its attendees, neighborhood patronage happy in gray winter coats and cheap boots, warm bodies gratefully clutching drinks, slurping liberally from smudgy, mismatched glasses; steam on the windows, weary spines hunched crazily over the bar-top to squint at the hockey game on the little counter television set, six day workweek having just slid open for this briefest respite, a little in the way of distraction, hoarse cheers going up every time a goal or dramatic save managed to cut through the static.
“You are like anyone,” Vanda said, slow, stark, fixing her with a careful stare. “Nobody is begging to save you. You want misery, loneliness, that’s fine. But stop complaining.”
Carmina started to nod, then kind of paused halfway, head down, hesitating, a gesture between fair enough and no use arguing. Turned a little to get a peek at the game, maybe change the subject but, before she could, the wave of pain came welling up, and she clutched her stomach, whimpering.
Vanda’s expression softened. “Carmina,” after the attack had passed, laying a hand on her cousin’s, which was trembling. “Dragă, it’s all in your mind. You need to get over it.”
Carmina looked up, eyes glossy with tears, shaking her head. “But the choice isn’t mine to make.”
In her mind. Carmina could still hear it, the way Vanda’s voice darkened in the pronouncement. How could she have said it, even thought it? After all she had told her, long months of mysterious pain, bureaucrat doctors coasting on a government paycheck for whom nothing appeared out of the ordinary, attendant suspicions and before long the corroborative evidence she pried from Emil, Cristian’s colleague who studied disease. She’d cornered him at their party a couple of weeks later, and if, sure, maybe the evening had gone a bit awry as a result, it didn’t detract from the validity of the confirmation.
“Parasitic infections are very common, he says,” badgering Vanda at that Sunday night dinner gathering, pointing at Emil across the table while the other guests, taken understandably aback by the conversation’s turn, registered expressions to that bewildered effect. “One in every, what was it? One in four people?”
All neighboring discussions went quiet, gazes leveling decidedly on the man being singled out. Emil smiled nervously. “Um, actually,” logging a quick stab of eye contact with Cristian, as if to absolve himself of any responsibility for the scene unfolding before them, “it’s more like one in three, according to our most recent data. Small creatures, worms, protozoa--”
“But harmless, Emil, tell her they are harmless,” Cristian chiming in.
“Mostly, yes, but of course there can be complications--”
“You see?” Carmina pleaded, jabbing forcefully at the air in Emil’s direction, wide eyes fixed on her cousin. “What did I tell you?”
“I’m sorry,” interjected Vanda, “Emil, yes, I’m sorry, sounds very interesting,” rising note of irritation clearly legible here, “but in what galaxy,” turning to her cousin, voice gathering volume on a precipitous, word-by-word basis, “is this considered appropriate dinner conversation?"
Marga, there with her boyfriend Stefan and by now appreciably drunk, exploded into uncontrollable laughter, whereupon Cristian, unable to hold it together, did the same. But rather than alleviating any of the tension, the losses of composure just seemed to ratchet it, and over the course of what felt like several minutes but was probably only ten or fifteen seconds, Vanda, predictably unamused, got up and left the table while around her the scene dissolved into general mirth.
“You see--” Cristian deciding to give Carmina a perfunctory chiding between giggle fits, “--see what your--” gulping another mouthful of plum brandy, “your fixation is doing to your cousin?”
Carmina surveyed the grins, the red faces, this sea of ridicule, an acute ache rising in her gut even then but, resolved not to let it show, she clenched a maniac fist under the table, fingernails carving up her palm. Her fixation.
Actually, before too long all the levity gave way to its logical underside, and the mood around the table turned to one of grim fascination. “Recent research suggests that behavioral changes as a result of parasitic infection are not the exception, but the rule.” They were by now gathered around Emil, leaning in keenly, as if listening to a campfire ghost story. “In addition to the primary physical symptoms--lethargy, loss of appetite, abdominal pain--researchers have managed to observe infected subjects acting out highly unusual, even suicidal, behaviors. What’s more--”
“--W-what kind of behaviors?” Stefan wanted to know; Marga, shushing, gave him a light slap across the arm for the interruption.
“Well, delusions and hallucinations have been observed,” Emil surveying the listenership as he spoke and--was he?--yes--looking at Carmina as he said this last bit. “Sometimes the subject will put itself deliberately in the path of a predator, or deny its own mating instinct. Things like that.”
Vanda had, for the last half hour or so, been in the bedroom, blasting the radio news on their old Diora receiver; her cousin, somehow unable to get much more of a thrill from the breathless tableside scientific narration, wandered in and found her face down on the bedspread, stock-still and spent. “You are not ‘infected’ with anything,” Vanda said, in an exhausted, mattress-muffled voice. Carmina hadn’t spoken yet; how had she even known it was her? “I don’t want to hear about it anymore, okay?”
“But I’ve seen them,” offered quietly, meeker than she’d meant for it to come out.
“You see what you want to see,” Vanda still not moving a muscle. “You convince yourself. It’s a Fata Morgana.”
“You’re wrong,” just a whisper by now.
“What is this really about, huh? Do you want to quit your job?”
The news story playing now was actually one Carmina and Marga and the rest of the office had worked on the day before--a piece reporting that annual production quotas had been exceeded for wheat, corn and potato crops for the fifth straight year--the data for which had come straight from the Party Secretary, who presumably had it from the Agricultural Ministry. Gazing around the room, Carmina saw the black dress she’d borrowed for her first day, hung sloppy over a doorknob, dragging partway on the shabby beige-carpeted floor, and moved to pick it up.
She took a crazy shot: “Can I borrow Cristian’s car for a few days?”
Vanda turned, with exaggerated length and effort, to look up at her, eyes stuck fast with incredulity. “You’re joking, right?”
Making her way toward the dress, Carmina shook her head no, acutely aware that it was the wrong thing to do, but doing it anyway.
“And go where?”
“I--don’t know. Maybe to the mountains, or--”
“No you can’t borrow it!” suddenly high-pitched, clipped among all the radio noise. “Cristian needs the car for work!”
Carmina absently fingered the black fabric. “He can take the trolley, though.” She knew she sounded unreasonable, but just kept going. “Or ride with Emil. Or--” just as enough was enough and whoom, a dark object came whipping across the room, belting her across the thigh, kicking her back into the doorjamb and onto the floor.
Carmina knelt, head swimming. The little radio receiver, thick, appreciably old, weighed a couple of kilos in spite of its small size. Vanda, hurling arm at full extension, had just fallen over from force of follow-through, and let out a few sobs, loud and, this time, unembellished. Carmina looked up at her cousin, and down to her hand. The dress. In one move she’d pulled it taut, right to the point of tearing, and cinched the length of it--just for a second--tightly around her own neck.
Cristian, hearing the noise from the other room, ran in to see what was going on and found the two of them like that, his wife on the bed in tears and Carmina eerily calm, halfway dissociated, dress hanging loose now off her shoulders, picking up and examining the receiver as her news report still issued forth, her words, tinny and warbling from its chipped 12cm loudspeaker.
“Are you two going to kick me out?” was all Carmina could think to ask him.
He seemed to hesitate, but then: “Of course not. You’re family.” A harried smile. “And besides, who would entertain us if you left?”
She peered down at her leg, and the greenish beginnings of a bruise where the radio had clocked her. “You could try watching Dallas like everyone else.”
She walked into work on Monday with no small amount of dread, but Marga behaved as if nothing had happened; she didn’t mention the party, the parasites, any of it. Carmina could have sworn, though, that the bosses knew something: more than once she thought she caught Pupazan staring at the spot where the bruise was on her leg, even though it was covered up under long pants; nameless office bureaucrats seemed to be making hushed gestures, pointing her out to one another; she was also hearing jokes, all day, little cracks about her, coming from the Party Secretary’s office down the hall.
“From down the hall? How could you even hear what they were saying?” when she confided some of this to Marga, outside on lunch break.
“I--the door was open, I just could.”
Marga blew out some cheap cigarette smoke. “Listen to me,” she preambled. “I know you get a lot of attention from men. Even Stefan was asking about you after the party at your house.”
“Oh please, Marga...”
“I know it makes you uncomfortable. You have your whole sickness thing. Whatever the truth is there, I understand that it must be hard on you. But still, all this talk about the office, I mean, don’t you think you sound,” breaking eye contact at the moment Carmina needed it most, “a little paranoid?”
God, Sue-Ellen, you too?
So fine; nobody believed her. Meantime her pain only worsened, increasing in intensity and regularity, and bringing with it this uncanny apprehension, always at the edge of awareness, a growing knowledge that there was to be no escape, no prospect of renewed normalcy. No return. She went days on end without eating. In the middle of the night, she’d wake seized by severe coughing fits; once, after spending several minutes hacking violently into an old handkerchief, she turned the light on to take stock of things, maybe get a glass of water, steady herself. There had been electricity brownouts all week, and the filament took some time to warm up. When the yellow glare off the bulb finally hit the old cloth, she’d seen it: a finger-length white worm, all twitched up and tensile, wriggling across the fabric.
The next Sunday, with Cristian and Vanda gone to the park to rent rowboats and the dread prospect ahead of a day alone in the house with only her blackness to occupy, she spotted the keys to Cristian’s Moskvich atop his bedroom dresser. Before she knew what had happened she’d driven an hour out of the city, heading for the edge of the forests north of the capital and the small spa village that Vanda’s mother had often taken the two of them as girls. A certain lingering folk wisdom had it that the thermal baths worked hydrotherapeutic wonders for ailments large and small, lending the whole area a resort cachet; the town square even boasted a statue depicting--in an acknowledged rip-off of the crest of every other better-known and fancier spa in the region--a man, once-sickly, now-strong, snapping his old pair of walking crutches over his knee. Encouraging, in other words; even if Carmina, like everyone else, knew better than to listen to any ancestral whispers suggesting mountain air and mineral baths were legitimate cures for serious illness. And so what? She spent every day surrounded by the fraudulent rationalizations of others; the whole world ran on pathetic fantasies. Why shouldn’t she indulge in one of her own?
The weather was wintry, bleak gray and biting. She’d been unable to avoid imagining that the roads leading into town would be jammed up and traffic-choked, clogged with city escapees, married couples looking to take in the hot springs, petty functionaries thrilled with their vacation day, Party bigwigs and foreign embassy workers ready to cut the lines. But there was no one around, and the ride was smooth.
She flicked on the radio receiver. She’d begun carrying it around, the last few months; sometimes bringing it to work in her purse, or cradling it like a child when she went for walks. It was a Diora Krokus 10501, technically a vehicle model, though Cristian and Vanda been using it in the house. Now, with the finicky car performing uncharacteristically well and her gut, for the moment, free of torment, Carmina began compulsively fidgeting with the tuner knob. Not really listening, ten seconds per station, she felt a lightness come over her: static, winding up the dial, back down, laughing, news reports, up again, static, agriculture quotas, speeding up, static, factory openings, a tear in her eye, a sharp turn, static, a Central Committee speech, static, a tire blowout, static, a roadside barrier swinging into frontal view, static--
Afterward she’d remember a song, at the moment she crashed, spontaneously tuning itself in: a sort of ornate folk guitar figure, pretty acoustic picking pattern and a high, wavering female voice wordlessly vocalizing above the chords. Something like a call to prayer. Open, boundary-less, a feeling of flight in the arrangement. “Kustom Kar Kommandos”--when a copy of the LP was eventually played at a party some time later and Carmina, hearing it for the first time since the accident, clicked into an extraordinary moment of recognition, breathlessly asking whose record it was. Actually it would turn out to belong to Emil, who had gotten it from his brother Radu, a mechanical engineer who supposedly took business trips to the UK and America and thus had a line on any music available there. No one at the party would be able to tell Carmina much about the group or the record, but everyone she’d ask would be sure of one thing: it never would’ve been played on state radio.
“You know better than any of us,” Cristian reasoning, “how rigidly Cultural and Political Activities controls what’s broadcast. You used to work there.”
“But I heard it. I know I did.”
“You were in shock,” bitter from Vanda as she downed a glass of tsuika. “Your ridiculous imagination again.”
“It was not my imagination,” another fight brewing, “I’m telling you, I fucking heard it!”
“Everyone calm down,” Cristian then, with two hands up, “and let’s just appreciate the lovely melody.”
“Yes, a lovely melody, Comrade!” now, cheery, over the hiss of leaking engine oil and the lilt of her unconscious humming. “You have a beautiful voice. But do you need a doctor?”
Shrugging off the suggestions of a vastly preferable space of numb acquiescence, Carmina opened her eyes to find a figure staring at her from the other side of the Moskvich’s cracked windshield. Black smoke, issuing from under the crumpled hood, partially obscured its face, but over a few seconds, she watched the hazy shape resolve itself into clear corporeality. The intense glare off a set of brilliant white teeth made her squint. It seemed to be, of all people, Domnul Pupazan.
“God, not you.”
“Comrade, please, are you hurt?”
“Get away. Stay away from me,” she mumbled.
“But you need help! My God, my heart sank when I saw it was you. I was simply driving along,” motioning to his black executive class Volga GAZ, parked behind him on the shoulder, “on my way to join my wife at the springs when I saw your vehicle, disabled and smoking. From the looks of the car, I thought you’d be dead.”
“Were you following me? Is Marga with you?”
“Marga? Who--why would Marga--”
“I know she reports on me to you, to the Secretary, to everyone.”
“My goodness,” his eyes narrow again, that inscrutable manner she remembered from her first day. Meaningless. “But you are very confused. Please just come with me and we will get you home safe.”
The Volga’s red leather interior smelled of rot. They drove half an hour in silence before Pupazan made with his usual prim, straitjacketed excuse for a friendly smile. “Was that Cristian’s 412 back there?”
Carmina nodded, weary.
“You know the story of how the Moskvich came to have four doors instead of two?”
She stared out the window, vague gray landscape, saying nothing.
“It was Stalin himself who ordered it. Originally the 400 was to be a two-door compact; when Stalin came to meet without the factory director to inspect the prototype, he got in and sat next to the driver. ‘Very nice, Comrade Director,’ he told his friend. ‘Now you get in too.’ Well,” beginning to guffaw, “you can bet the director turned white as a sheet! What could he say: ‘Yes Iosif Vissarionovich, only you get out so I can fold your seat and climb in the back’?” Pupazan suppressed a giggle. “I mean, can you imagine his terror? But Stalin was feeling forgiving, and told him simply, ‘Make it comfortable. Give it four doors.’ And thus, we have your friend the professor’s model, rather more luxurious, befitting a man of his stature.” He cocked his head, looked over at her. “Funny story, isn’t it?”
When she spoke, it came out listless and monotone: “My cousin is going to go through the roof when she finds out I wrecked it.”
Pupazan assumed a reassuring air. “Now, I’m sure that’s not true. What’s important is that you’re alright.”
“No, it doesn’t matter. All of this...” gesturing about the car, toward herself, out the window, the whole countryside coming in for this dismissal, blinking slow, gritting her teeth. “...I’m not alright, in any case.”
“I’m so sorry to hear,” with the usual adopted tone of concern. “You are hurt?”
She shook her head. “It’s not the accident.”
“Then what is troubling you?”
Nothing to lose, Carmina resolved to answer honestly. She thought for a moment.
“I feel like I’ve been possessed by the devil.”
Pupazan nodded, eyes on the road. “These are perilous times, of course. We’re surrounded by adversaries. At every moment our country’s future is in doubt.”
“Will I be reassigned, at work?” her voice was coming out distant, dull. “Fired? Or arrested?”
Pupazan’s face took on a steely aspect. “Yes,” he said, and fell silent.
They called a meeting. Everyone came--the anonymous bureaucrats, the Party Secretary, Pupazan in a white tailored suit, Marga, of course, even Emil. Nobody looked up. They’d prepared a written statement for her to sign, attesting to her uncomradely attitude and treasonous actions, the ultimate consequences of which would be decided by a Central Committee representative who would, presumably, get in touch with her at home.
“Is there anything you’d like to say to your colleagues?” some baldheaded apparatchik asked her.
She shrugged, playing with the pen they gave her. “Let’s not talk about it anymore. I made my choices. I was born here, but this world is not mine. I’m a contemporary of the centuries to come.”
On her way back to Vanda and Cristian’s, she got off the trolley a couple of stops early and walked up to the park, whose small man-made pond figured as a regular destination for neighborhood couples. Taking a seat in the grass, she followed the path of a small black bird as it darted an irregular bounce above the surface, then touched down jerkily on the bank. It flapped and reflapped what seemed to be a useless bum wing, trying a couple of times to launch itself back out over the water. It dug its beak into the dirt, pulling loose a root or insect, which it chewed over absently for a few seconds before a noisy ambulance drove by and it flew away.
Atonwa’s reasons for unmooring Pat and Billy’s raft early this morning while both were asleep--cutting the styrofoam and plywood assemblage loose and setting its passengers adrift down the Perdido at a peaceable southerly clip--are his own. Ditto for his decision to hitch to Mobile, locate that night’s Earthenware Virgin and Child gig at an old creole cottage a few miles outside of town, spot the touring band’s rebuilt tour vehicle, and get in.
That nobody heard Atonwa shut the car door, out in the dark of the yard, spoke either to the relative good sense of these preceding determinations or else to the thickness of the sonic cover provided by the band inside the house as they tuned up; soundcheck was beginning just then, and folks were filing down to the basement in advance of the set. But had any guests been outside, finishing their cigs and looking in the right direction, they might still have seen Atonwa’s skinny frame rifling around the sedan interior, kicking over trucker atlases and stacks of merch before flipping down the folded passenger’s side sun visor and jostling two items loose. One was an LP jacket, scuffed and weathered to a fine toothy grade of cardstock, that he sat studying for a minute or two. The other was the unadorned brass ignition key. By the time Earthenware Virgin and Child had finished their last line-check, Atonwa’d started the engine, killed the running lights and backed the car up along the unpaved driveway all the way out to the public access road before stopping, putting it in first and flooring it back onto the property, ploughing into the big live oak, knocking himself unconscious, leveling a fencepost, and in general just smashing everything to shit.
Before long he’s shaken awake. “Jesus, man, what’d you do that for?” Okay, guess there had been someone out here, a lanky local, maybe twenty, anxious, too stoned, in all likelihood, to go downstairs and watch the band, pacing back and forth across a patch of dirt on the far side of the porch--too far to see the car pull out, too close not to hear the crash. “You alright? Hey, you cool?” as Atonwa comes to, slow, bit of dried blood on his forehead but this blissed out expression on his face, smiling through the gore. “You alright? Want me to get help?”
Our man Atonwa just shrugs. “Don’t mind me, man.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. Hey,” one eye on the ripped-up, glass-shard-speckled LP jacket in his lap, “you should probably get downstairs,” gesturing toward the house. “I hear this band is pretty good.”
NEXT: The Third Mind Grind.
© MARK IOSIFESCU, 2015