The Fourth

The Kurd is a Muslim and he kills the goat in the proper way.  He keeps it still by squeezing its body between his strong legs, holds its head back, and opens its throat with a long knife.  Blood spills between his fingers and flows down the goat’s white chest.  The knife is so sharp and the Kurd is so fast that the animal doesn’t have time to know it has been cut.  It dies very quietly.

Afterward we hang the goat upside-down from a low tree branch to let the blood drain out.  I help because it seems like the polite thing to do.  The Kurd, whose name is Ahmede, makes a clean cut in the skin down the goat’s belly and chest.  We cut around the goat’s anus, pull its intestines a little  ways out of its body, and then tie them off with twine to keep them from spilling into the rest of the body.  We peel off the skin and fat in long white sheets and drop the offal onto a plastic tarp.  Afterward my hands are sticky with blood and white hairs.  I go inside them and wash them with soap and cold water from the kitchen sink.

When I walk back outside Ahmede has already portioned the goat with a cleaver and thrown it on the grill.  Fat renders, drips onto the coals, and burns up in little flares.

It’s the fourth of July and we’re having a barbeque.

I was invited to the barbeque by my best friend in this city, Serhiy Georgyeyich Klychko.  He goes by Serge because it’s easier for Americans to say.  Serge is from the Ukraine.  I am from Brighton Beach and I am an American.  My parents and most of their friends are originally from elsewhere, though, so I speak some languages that are not English.  If Serge and I are being secret we speak to each other in Russian.

We both have accents.  Serge speaks Russian like a Ukrainian and I speak Russian like a Jew.
I’ve been in Portland for about a year and this is my first independence day here.  I like this city okay.  I can see green mountains for miles all around and the air is very clean, but we are far away from the ocean and everything closes at 10 PM.  It rains very often but not so often in the summer.  Today it is sunny.

I’ve never met Ahmede before, even though we both work for the same boss.  Our boss’ name is Leon and he is a kind of businessman.  Serge knows Ahmede and passed the invitation to me.  I know what Serge and I do for Leon, but I don’t know what Ahmede does.  He is so good with his knife that I have a few not-so-nice ideas.  I shouldn’t make assumptions, though.

Ahmede himself is very nice.  He is a small, dark man with large white teeth.  He lives in a flat tract home with a yard and a fence around it.  He has a pleasant fat wife and two or three little daughters who run around the yard with a big dog.  A few of Ahmede’s Vietnamese neighbors are at the barbeque and they talk to each other in a language that moves around my ears without going inside them.  Everyone scoops goat meat and noodles and potato salad onto paper plates and eats standing up.

Today it is sunny and I can feel the sun heating up the black hairs on top of my head.  My scalp feels warm and I hope it won’t get sunburned.  I eat the burnt edges of the goat meat and compliment the wife on her home and the potato salad.  She is not really listening, but instead staring up at Serge.  People stare up at Serge a lot.

Serge is maybe seven feet tall.  He wears clothes that are always too small and canvas high-top sneakers the size of boats.  Serge has a healthy pink face and peach-colored hair, but his body is solid and heavy.  His fists hang at his sides like sledgehammers.  Sometimes Serge clenches his muscles and invites me to punch him in the stomach.  My fingers sink in a centimeter and then bruise.

Ahmede’s wife says to Serge, “Huh.  What did they feed you?”

“Potatoes and radiation,” says Serge.  He is very good at being deadpan.

“And you,” she says, swinging her head towards me, “You look stunted.”

“Chicken fat,” I say.  “And more potatoes.”

“Huh,” says the woman again.  She puts the base of her palm on her broad hips.  “Okay then.”  She turns to yell at her daughters, who are throwing pebbles at the chain-link fence.  That is that, so Serge and I head over to Ahmede.  He is fussing over the grill and smoking a hand-rolled cigarette.  I want a cigarette for myself, but I don’t like to smoke where people are eating.

“Ahmede,” says Serge.  “This is Rivka.”

Ahmede looks me up and down.  “Yeah.  We’ve met.”

Now that my hand isn’t sticky with raw meat, I hold it out to Ahmede and he gives it two hard pumps.

“Thanks for helping with the goat,” says Ahmede.  “Most of the time girls are no good for that kind of thing.  Too squeamish.  Where are you from?”

I shrug and say, “New York.  It doesn’t matter.”

Serge laughs a little.  “Rivka doesn’t like to talk much about things in the past.  She is like you, Ahmede.”  He peers into the coals of the grill.  “I don’t understand it.  What’s so bad about the past?  Maybe it is because I had a happy childhood.”

“Serge,” I say, “When you were a child you were almost killed by nuclear fallout.”

“That doesn’t mean I wasn’t happy.”  Serge fixes me with his pale calm eyes.  Once over beers he told me that he was born in Chernobyl. He told me that people always confuse it with Pripyat, which was closer to the power plant and was where the plant works lived, but they were very different cities.  No one lives there now.  He was about ten when the power plant blew up and his family had to evacuate.  He had been sure it was the end of the world.  Since then Serge has been in a good mood because the world continues to exist.  He moved to the states in the nineties because he was bored in the Ukraine and he liked American comic books and American sneakers.

“Ahmede is from Turkey,” says Serge like it means something.

Ahmede spits on to the coals.  “Who cares?” he says.  “We’re all here now.  You two will stay for the fireworks?”

“No today,” I say.  “We’re going to the mountains after lunch.  Serge borrowed a car.”

Ahmede squints at me and lets the soggy end of his cigarette fall onto the coals.  “Why for?”

“Hiking,” I say.

“Also,” says Serge, “Some people saw a Bigfoot on Mt. Hood.  Maybe we will spot him.”

Ahmede laughs through his teeth.  “It is scientific,” says Serge.  “Cryptozoology.  There are photographs.”

“A nice hike,” I say.

“You do this too?” asks Ahmede, turning to me.

I shrug again.

“Rivka knows that there are things in this world we do not usually see.  She has experienced many unusual occurrences,” says Serge.  “It is possible this is because she comes from a line of mystics.”

“I do not,” I say.  “My grandfather was a partisan fighter.”

“Your surname is Balshemnnikov,” says Serge

“So what?” I say.

Serge drops it.  He puts a massive arm across my shoulders and feel myself sink a little into the soft ground under the weight.

Ahmede looks back and forth between us and smiles.  He probably thinks that Serge is my boyfriend and I let him think that.  So far we are just friends and sometimes co-workers.  Like Me, Serge has two jobs.  One is legitimate and the other not so much.  At night he works as a bouncer and during the day he runs errands for Leon.  I paint the insides of houses and sometimes I run errands for Leon, too.  Serge and I run different kinds of errands.

I met Serge because we were running the same kind of errands.  When I work for Leon I deliver small packages on my bicycle.  I don’t ask what is in the packages.  I get them to their destination safe and on time without knowing anything about them and that is the way I like it.  Leon pays me in cash, which I also like.  I spend half the cash and I save the rest.

One time when I was supposed to pick up a package there was some sort of problem so Leon sent Serge with me.  It turned out there was a problem with the package because the guy holding the package didn’t want to give it up.  The package was supposed to be some money that the man owed.

Here is what happened.  I went inside to talk to the man while Serge waited on the front porch.

The man in the house was a scraggly white American.  He was sitting at a plastic table in a kitchen that didn’t look like it had been used to cook food for a long time.

“Where’s Leon?” asked the man.

I sat down across from him.  “Hello,” I said, holding out my hand,  “I’m Rivka Balshemennikov.”

The man didn’t take my hand.  He spat onto the table.  “I’m supposed to meet with Leon.  I don’t know you.”

I looked at the place on the table where the man had spat.  It was a disgusting thing to do, but it was his table and he could do what he liked with it.  If it had been my table he spat on this would have been a different story.

“Leon sent me,” I continued, “So you can talk to me.  Okay?”

The man glared at me.  While he was grinding his teeth, I reached into the pocket of my coat and pulled out my pack cigarettes.  I lit one and stuck it in the corner of my mouth.

“You owe Leon some money,” I said.

“Yeah, and I told him that I’d get to him.  I’m just getting it to him in my own damn time.”

“That’s not how this works,” I said.  “You don’t make the schedule.  You get the money to Leon on Leon’s time.”

The man’s eyes rolled in his head.  He pushed himself back from the table and his chair screeched against the linoleum.  “Listen,” he said, “You go and tell Leon that he’ll get the money when he gets it.”

The man grabbed the edge of the table with his hands and flipped it over.  A plastic ashtray banged on the floor.  I stood up from my chair and held out both my hands.  I kept my cigarette between my teeth.

“Please calm yourself,” I said.

The man continued to glare at me.  His eyes were red and dry.  He kicked the table and it scraped a little further across the floor.  He kicked his chair over too.

What did I care?  It wasn’t my furniture.  I was starting to get sort of nervous about the situation, though.  I was not going like I had hoped.

The man turned around and started opening the cabinets of the kitchen.  Dusty ceramic plates lay in grey stacks.  He picked one up and than smashed it hard on the linoleum.  I jumped backward out of the spray of broken pieces.

“Hey,” I said.

The man kept his eyes fixed on me as he smashed the rest of the plates one by one.  I think he was hoping that I would leave.  He grabbed an old coffee machine from the countertop and held it over his head.

The door opened and Serge stepped into the kitchen from the front porch.  His pink fists hung at his side like two Christmas hams.  The man froze and stood with the appliance over his head.  Serge reached towards the man and grabbed the coffee machine.

“This is a good coffee maker,” said Serge.  “If you don’t want it, I will take it.”  The man’s fingers loosened one by one.  His hands dropped and his red eyes shook in his face.

Serge put the coffee machine back on the counter and looked at me.  “You didn’t call for me,” he said.

“I didn’t think it was going so bad,” I said.  I turned back to the man.  “Now that you are composed,” I said, “We can talk about the money.”

“Was he rude to you?  Does he need a smack?” asked Serge.  The man shifted in his place and looked at the ground.

“Not yet,” I said.  “Now.  The money?”

The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a stack of bills rolled up in a rubber band.  “I’ll have the other grand by next week,” he said.

I stuck the money into the pocket of my coat.  “Thank you,” I said.  “It was a pleasure doing business with you.”

“Yeah,” said the man.  He kept his eyes on the ground and away from Serge.  Serge looked at me and I jerked my chin towards the door.  We left.

When we got back on the street, Serge said, “You should have bopped him.  I would have held him in place for you.”

I put out my hand and spread my fingers.  Then I made a fist and held it up to him.  “He had a boney face.  I would have bruised my knuckles.”

Serge looked down at me from his great height.  He held out his own hand next to mine and curled his fingers into a ball.  “You could have let me bop him for you.”  Serge swung his massive fist through the air.  “Pow!” he said.

“Well, maybe next time,” I said.

We kept walking.  Serge had my bike up over his big shoulders.  I looked down at my boots and dragged the soles against the concrete.  After a few blocks neon flashed from somewhere above my head and Serge stopped.  He put my bike down and jerked his shoulder upward.

“Hey!” said Serge, “Let’s go get a beer.  I will buy you one, even.  You seem like an unhappy girl.”

At the bar I told Serge why I was an unhappy girl.  I told him that month ago my boyfriend left me and I kept thinking about it all the time.

Serge put his giant hands on either side of my face.  His fingers were across my ears so I could hardly hear him.  He said something about how love makes everyone think backwards.  He told me I was pretty young and that I would figure it out.

After that we are friends.

Here are the barbeque we go sit in the grass by the tree.  The remains of the goat are hanging in the tree where the dog can’t get it.  It is mostly head and hooves.

There is a flap in the tree above us and I raise my chin to look.  A crow scrabbles at the goat’s pink skull.  It picks out a staring eye with its beak and gulps the jelly down.

I elbow Serge.  When we’re standing up my elbow is level with his hip.  “Look at that,” I say.

Serge squints his blue eyes at the goat carcass.  “There’s a crow,” he says.

“Do you think it’s a good omen, or a bad one?” I say.

Serge thinks.  “A good one,” he says.  “The crow’s happy, isn’t it?”  He rubs the top of my head like it’s good luck.  Then he puts his arm around my waist and keeps it there.

Serge has never tried to kiss me, not once.  I would say it is because he thinks I’m ugly, but sometimes he looks at me very carefully in a way that makes me think that isn’t it.  When he lifts weights in his basement apartment, he likes it when I’m there to watch.  He lies on his back and hoists barbells over his head while I read my books.  On certain late nights he comes to my house very drunk and lies on my couch and sleeps there, I think because he doesn’t want to be by himself in his basement apartment when he is feeling lonely like that.  If I let him use my shower I can hear him singing Elvis songs all the way out in the living room.  “Don’t be cruel / to a heart that’s true.”

I’m not very sure what I feel about Serge.  I do know I like him.  I think he is very present in this world.  I think that I would be better off if I could be more like him.

Sometimes when Serge can borrow a car we go through long drives out through the trees.  I don’t have a license, but when we get far enough out I practice my driving.  Once there was a turtle in the middle of the road and Serge stopped the car so we could get out and help it cross.

My days in this city are simple and often the same.  I live cheaply and quietly.  I ride my bike and go to work.  I take long walks around town with people I know and sometimes I go out for drinks.  I recycle cans.  I boil chicken carcasses into stock on the stove while Jello Biafra yells from my stereo about how he’s looking forward to death.  Serge lies on my couch with his eyes closed and his feet hanging over the armrests.  He listens very hard.

I live in one bedroom of a little house off Division St.  My roommate is a medical student and isn’t home very often.  When she passes through the living room she blinks at me like she forgot I live there.  I like my room in the little house, so I’ve been there a while.  I started gluing the fortunes I get from cookies to the wall.  There are a lot of them now.  I bought a record player from a pawnshop and started storing records in plastic milk crates around the edges of my room.  My mattress is on the floor.  I could still leave at any time.

—–

In celebration of ‘Merica, here’s the thesis-version of “The Fourth”.  It actually was the last story printed in my thesis, but I didn’t particularly care for the final ordering that much so I’m going to post these stories in whatever order I damn well please.

“The Fourth” is a mess.  It’s unfocused, jumps from scene to scene, and deals with characters I’ve already written about and didn’t want to let go of.  Of all the stories in the Satellites collection, it’s the one that least stands on it’s own.  It’s the kind of mess I like, though.  While it was perhaps the most troublesome of all the stories I wrote last year, I still decided to include it in the final thesis collection.

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