[Issue 2 / August 2012]
You see them wherever you go. On Broome Street, Sunday mornings, walking arm in arm. He wears a trench coat and carries a Times under his elbow. She’s telling him something private and unimportant and hanging onto a leash that harnesses a non-descript mutt. The dog sniffs at every other wad of garbage and stain on the sidewalk. All three are oblivious to the steady drizzle and bare branches of the maples holding down the sidewalks at catty-corner. Or they’re on Michigan Avenue drinking steaming cups of coffee out of wax-coated paper cups, smiling and walking slowly over the bridge and looking through its eroding segments to see the green river at standstill. In an early afternoon dusting of snow, they’re silent thinking each other’s thoughts. Come evening, they’re at the beach after sunset. Theirs is the only car in the empty parking lot that has become a gathering point for hungry seagulls. A flick of a lighter illuminates the moving silhouettes of their heads for an instant. Voices from the radio slip out of the window cracked open. The surf churns up foam, empty bottles, cigarette butts, and strands of seaweed on the white stones blackened at their base where they touch water.
The traffic is heavy at this time of night. I wait impatiently on the roadside ready to jaywalk. Soon the soccer stadium will be filling with rowdy coliseum goers. Already, some are racing from their neighborhood bars to get the best parking and seats available. It’s obvious who they are not only by the speed at which they’re driving these winding streets, but by the local team’s song they honk out as they pass the beachside restaurants. Doot dadoot doot doot doot.
Because it’s winter, the city isn’t as crowded as it normally is and that’s why I’m out walking tonight. There’s a certain edifying solitude in being in prime locations at the wrong time. The almost abandoned bars in skiing towns during long American summers. The barren streets of Phoenix in the searing afternoon sun. Or Los Angeles whenever it rains.
The statue the city has erected at its main intersection points eastwards and gives me my cue. I have an hour to make it up the hill to the cathedral. In my backpack I have all I need for my pilgrimage: a notebook and a bottle of water. The hillside dwellings are painted a salmon color of orange. The adobe walls that attempt to conceal them are lined with pieces of broken bottles of varying hues: green, blue, lacquer brown. I carefully put my hand over one of the points to find that it has been dulled by erosion. The leveling power of the wind is a force in these parts.
The hill’s seemingly innocuous elevation of two hundred or so meters has me breathing hard three-quarters of the way up. This terrain, which is semi-arid, has formed steep outcroppings of calcite on which the city clings. The landscape is more like desert than temperate zone, but it’s well concealed by pines that spring from anywhere the dusty soil has gathered. There’s a garden of wild vegetation bounded by yuccas. It’s hard not to continue up the path without looking towards Golgotha. I pass a woman in a fur coat carrying a bag of oranges and she says something about the wonderful view that awaits me. Her hair is dyed with henna and she descends the hill in high heels.
The Moorish spires of the cathedral reach into a blinding sky. On them are black stains of gunfire that the Germans left when they attempted to take the citadel. As a matter of pride, the locals let it be known that this part of the country has never been under a Teutonic yoke. Every crack and fissure of the edifice highlighted by a dark erosive effect of rainwater, which emphasizes its age and longevity. From a distance, it looks like the walls are growing hair.
When I reached the hilltop, it was surprising to see a group of older Arabs as the only visitors. The men dressed in grey jackets with their white chechias. The women in resplendent djellabas lined in gold lamé, walking up the stairs slowly because of their swollen ankles. When they reached the top piazza, myself steps behind, they looked at the sea and pointed out towards the clouds where Algeria might be. Or Morocco. Perhaps Tunisia. An Egyptian ocean liner steadily crosses the water in-between the islands of the bay. It was from this great height that the labyrinth of the city became apparent. The tight matrix of red-tiled, concrete buildings below us was beginning to make sense.
There was a couple on the highest viewpoint holding each other and speaking quietly. They were unaware of the futility of traffic and the ships bellowing their horns as they slowly maneuvered into port. The two were awaiting what was theirs that evening—the sun falling into the sea.
Once I entered the cathedral, I no longer wondered why believers of another faith would be touring this temple. The singing of monks piped in on tiny, modern, concealed speakers added to the liminal effect. The ornate interior diffused such a small irony.
It was more of an art gallery: there were paintings hung on the wall, mobiles of wooden ships strung from the vaulted ceiling, and mosaics of the most stunning colors looking down at a few quiet meditators. The paintings, from what I could make out, were done by locals who had been in some perilous circumstance and, with the grace of divine intervention, survived to tell their stories. Some were done by children. There was a painting of a downed Sopwith Camel with its pilot lying dazed over the target symbol on the wing and a radiant virgin watching over the scene. Heaven in the upper right hand corner.
Another was of a cat flung to the side of the road by a car, yet miraculously alive, the red tag of its tongue sticking out. There were paintings of clipper ships on stormy seas; of bus crashes in the country; invalids with smiling faces in the hospital. All had the virgin looking over them arrayed in colors of glory.
The whispering of a barely audible voice brought me back from my momentary trance. A little, bent-over woman in the front pews garnered my attention. She was busy saying the rosary. When I saw the babushka covering her head, I knew who it was. I even knew her name. Angèle.
I am a long unknown relative of hers—her sister’s grandson—and I had found her name in the address book of my grandmother’s years ago. I called her just two days ago and explained as best I could who I was, and since I was in this part of the country, I would like to meet her. It was a mystery why someone related to me might be in a country so far from the wilds of Northeast Europe from where the legacy of my line had come. She agreed to my visit and was now patiently awaiting my arrival, steeped in a faith I didn’t share.
“Hello Madame, let me introduce myself . . .” I began. She said my name and embraced me.
“You are the spitting image of your mother. It is so good to finally meet you.”
I helped her up and offered to take her to lunch in the cafeteria nearby but she refused and told me that we would have lunch at her place not too far from here.
On the bus ride to her house, she pointed out to me the houses of neighbors and people she knew. There was the mansion of a Christian Lebanese general who is seeking asylum in the city. The relatively ornate house was guarded by militiamen and was severed from the streets by heavy, moveable iron barricades. It leaned on a crag at the sea’s edge. There was the apartment of Edward who lost his arm in the war and who came over on Thursday nights to drink whiskey and play cards. There is where Lorraine lived with her three sisters, all who cooked meals for the nuns in the Orthodox convent. Angèle gave the city that kept to itself behind bright green shutters and blue-tiled addresses a personality.
Her house was a tiny affair that was really more garden than living quarters. She apologized for it being winter hence the absence of the carnations and gladiolas that regularly surrounded the place. Inside I was greeted by her son, decades older than I, and a lethargic black cat named Fishbone.
She made her son, Aldo, and me some soup as if we both were regular visitors who came daily for lunch, while she tinkered around the kitchen and sang a tune under her breath. Aldo was amazed by my presence and asked me many questions. We ate our meal and told our stories between mouthfuls of soup, then bread, then fish, then salad, then cakes. When the food finally stopped, she sat down next to me and simply smiled. I asked her how she got here and why. She began by saying, “Oh, that old story, well, all right . . .”
‘When I was a little girl, about fifteen or sixteen, I worked on a farm. I was in charge of the daily chores, you know, watering the chickens and the ducks, taking hay to the cows, collecting eggs, feeding the goats, combing the horses manes. There was another worker there named Gregor who was of the marrying age and who was, although I didn’t know it at the time, seeking me as his prospect. He wasn’t an ugly man but he was large and burly and he had lost an eye when a stubborn mule decided to kick him in the head rather than move.
‘One day this Gregor with one eye wanted to help me get the hay for the cows. I can remember the day because it had been raining like the dickens for three days, and this day the rain was sparse, like a mist. The thunderheads were rumbling in the distance but the wind was pushing them away from our neck of the woods and the skies were a lighter grey than they had been. It almost looked like day in the daytime.
‘Since he wanted to assist me, I let him because haying the cows was not very fun for me. Although I was a strong girl, the hay was scratchy, getting into my blouse and hair, and heavier than you think. He followed me up the ladder to the loft where the hay was stored. We began pushing clumps of it off the loft to the floor and sweating like pigs because it is much warmer at the top of the barn than at the bottom where there are doors. He took off his shirt while I had to stop every few minutes to wipe the sweat from my brows and eyes. I joked with him saying that it must be easier for him to work hard because the sweat could only go into one of his eyes so he shouldn’t have to stop as often as I.
‘When I turned to acknowledge my bit of humor, I saw him standing there looking at me. Then he quite mechanically pulled at the rope that held his burlap pants on his waist, and let me say, he did not look tired at all. His . . . his . . . his thing was straight up like the handle of a pitchfork, of which I first thought it was, and he took me by the arms, breathing like an animal, and threw me into the bundle of hay. I was a young girl and didn’t know what was going to happen, although I had an idea of what was taking place.
‘Once father had told me to throw ice cold water from the trough on the stray dog who got stuck in a barn cat when I found them both wailing together in the grain house.
‘Gregor had much the very same look in his eye as that poor old dog did.
‘I said no, no Gregor, don’t treat me like an animal of the barn. You can do whatever you like but please go get a blanket, even if it is the old blanket we put under the horse’s saddle. The hay and sharp pieces of straw may cut me so and father will ask me about the cuts when I bathe myself in the tub tonight.
‘He held me so close that the sweat from his forehead dropped into my eyes, burning my sight. Everything became blurry. He looked at me so deeply that I thought he had passed out with his one good eye open, but I could hear his breath and his tongue stopping in the back of his throat like an arrow being held on a bow about to be unleashed from its quiver.
After his moment of thought, he agreed but was unable to retie the knot of rope fastened to his pants, so let them fall to his ankles and hobbled down the ladder. He took the blanket from a peg on the wall and hopped up the ladder without even using his hands.
‘When he was almost to the loft, with my bare feet I pushed the ladder as far out as I could. Gregor then grabbed it with his hands and, on the ladder, stood straight up and down.
With much exertion, he managed to balance on the ladder, I thought that it might fall back onto the loft and I would be raped, maybe become pregnant, and have to marry this awful man and this terrible future played out like a moving picture in my mind. But when his pants tore in half from between his ankles and he looked down, the ladder toppled backwards and he fell to the ground on his back.
‘I yelled for help and Poppa came into the barn. I said that Gregor fell because I accidentally pushed the ladder away from the loft with a stroke of the pitchfork. Gregor was moaning—lying in the dirt with the rags of his pants around his ankles and we never discussed the event ever again.
‘It turned out that Gregor had only broken his shoulder bone and some ribs and would return to our farm in the fall when he was better. I knew that something terrible would happen to me if we were both to be working in a field beyond a call to the house. Then I knew I had to leave.
‘Your Grandmother had saved enough money to take the boat to America and before she left, she gave me the name of a family living in Paris who had posted a work notice at the University. These people needed a maid to keep the house and care for the children so I wrote them a letter and they offered me the job.
‘So I was off to Paris. It was a much better life. I lived in a big house and would only have to go to the street to find milk and the finest cheeses and bread, and good bread at that. The man I worked for was a government official and paid me well and the children were darling and I was very happy. Then the Germans came and took the city and the family I worked for had to leave. Without an explanation, they told me I should get out of the city and go far away to be safe. They were moving to another country, but they wouldn’t tell me where to ensure my own safety. I packed what little I had, and with a friend of mine who was a cook in a restaurant that the Germans shut down, went to the government office to find work somewhere else.
At this point, Angèle’s speech began to wax more and more into an accent and it became harder for me to understand her story. Aldo helped me out by translating phrases here and there. I noticed her eyes began to gloss over with a wetness as she spoke staring at an embroidered pattern on the tablecloth.
‘It so happened that the Germans briefly were in control of the hospital here in the southern part of the country. When they left, the Italians took over but soon abandoned it as the war changed to different theaters, and so for reasons beyond my knowledge, the British took control. We were offered jobs doing the laundry and whatnot but we had to hitchhike down here from Paris. In between Paris and here, a farmer dropped us off in a city, I can’t remember the name, but it was large enough to have a zoo, and because he knew someone who worked there, he suggested that we stay there until he could arrange a ride for us to reach the hospital.
‘We used the cloth bags that carried what little luggage we could take as blankets and we made our beds in an empty cage that previously was an exhibit of wolves from the forests of Bavaria. It still smelled of them and their droppings were lying all around like loaves of moldy bread. I barely slept that night because of the noise the rats made. I kept waking on the hour thinking that there was a solitary wolf they had forgotten to remove, hiding in the corner, ready to attack us at any moment.
‘In the morning we were awakened by men’s voices and a loud noise like the sound of sawing. It seemed that one of the miniature horses had died and the workers were cutting it into rations. I saw the body of this lovely creature disassembled as if it were a broken toy, its bloody hindquarters leaning up against a wooden fence.
‘The same farmer that took us to the town gave us a ride to this city after we both did a day’s worth of chores and paid him some money on top of it. I remember that ride through the country, through the farmland that turned from rows of corn into lines of black, wiry grape vines. It was the first time that I was able to see such an amount of land. Green hills that bleached to white. It became my country.
‘When we finally arrived here, there was a notice posted in the hospital that proclaimed if one could raise a certain amount of money, a visa could be issued to go to America. My dear friend who was younger than I didn’t have enough money so I gave her the rest of mine from my days working as a maid and the next day I said my goodbye to her at the port. I have never seen or heard from her again.
‘I found an add for a room for rent at the grocery store and called. The gentleman who was the landlord and recently released from his duty gave me the room, explaining that it would have electricity in a week or so, but despondent as I was, I moved in immediately. I cooked my meals outside using wood and I washed my clothes down the hill in the sea. That room was in the house next door.’
Aldo broke in saying, “And in that week, he did provide the electricity. The landlord, you see, is my father.”
We broke out in laughter. But he soon became solemn when he explained that his father was quite sick and was staying in the very hospital that was Angèle’s passport to freedom. The beginning of her life and the sad chapter that was now unraveling were found at the same location. The hospital was just up the hill overlooking the turquoise Mediterranean.
‘We would go to the horse races, even the bullfights when they had them. Or we would just walk along the beach and watch the hills turn orange at day’s end. Now they won’t even let me bring him meals. And I can only see him for hours a day.
She began to cry. It was now dark outside. The features of the Black Madonna hanging near the window could no longer be made out. We exchanged telephone numbers and addresses. As I prepared for my departure, Angèle offered me a room to stay in but I told her that I had one rented on the other side of town. I promised that the family in America would make contact as soon as possible and that if there was any assistance I could provide.
They both thanked me, Angèle gave me a biscuit for my bus ride back and Aldo hugged me as if I were his long lost son. I didn’t want to leave but I had to get back to my small room and the family who was renting it to me. I would be leaving the country in a few days.
Fishbone the cat followed me as far as the front gate and made a sound that sounded like “No” as I closed the lock and waved goodbye.
I caught the bus on the top of the hill near the tall hospital building that stood with most of its lights on. The bus was empty except a couple in the back who held onto each other as if the destination they longed for was sleep. His leather jacket creaked when he moved and she had a delicate silver ring pierced into her nostril. They talked at each stop we came to.
Because you see them everywhere you go. Carrying bread home from the baker’s or watching television together in a dimly lit apartment levels above the main street. They travel to foreign countries together or hold jobs in the same office. They talk of vacations they shared in the mountains or times they learned how to ride mopeds along the narrow alleys of the downtown. They share the quotidian intimacies of the day. Their shoes left stepping on each other at the door. Their clothes intertwined in the hamper. A round coffee stain on the pillowcase. Theirs are the secret stories of how they met and fell in love and how they let this love narrate the all too short story of their lives.
When we reached my temporary block of the neighborhood, I signaled for a stop. I was the only one left on the route. I still held the biscuit Angèle gave me in the warm hollow of my pocket. I wondered where the young couple was going. If they lived around here, in an apartment, it couldn’t be too far from where I was staying. The doors hissed open and the bus driver turned around. He waved to me and with a wink said, “Until we meet again.”
Philip Kobylarz lives in the East Bay of San Francisco. Recent work of his appears or will appear in Tampa Review, Apt, Santa Fe Literary Review, New American Writing, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Salzburg Review and has appeared in Best American Poetry. His book, Rues, has recently been published by Blue Light Press of San Francisco.