The Noble Truths of Suffering
The uniformed jaran did not acknowledge that I spoke in Bosnian to him. Silently, he checked my invitation, then compared the picture in my American passport with my mopey local face, and it appeared to have matched reasonably well. His head resembled an armchair—the deep-set forehead, the handlebar-like ears, the jutted jaw-seat—and I could not stop staring at it. He handed me back my passport with the invitation tucked inside and said, with his furniture-head accent: “Good evening to you.”
The American ambassador’s house was a huge ugly new thing, famously built high up in the hills by a Bosnian tycoon before he abruptly decided he needed even more space and, without spending a day in it, rented it to His American Excellency. There was still some work to be done—the narrow concrete path zigzagged meaninglessly through a veritable mud ﬁeld; the bottom left corner of the frontage was unpainted, so it looked like a recently scarred-over wound. Farther up the hill, one could see a yellow lace threading the fringes of the woods, marking a wilderness thick with mines.
Inside, however, all was asparkle. The walls were dazzling white, the stairs squeaked with untroddenness; on the ﬁrst landing was a stand with a large bronze eagle, its wings frozen mid-ﬂap over a hapless, writhing snake. At the top of the stairs, in a spiffy suit, if a size too big, stood Jonah, the cultural attaché, whom I had once misaddressed as Johnny and kept misaddressing since, pretending it was a joke. “Johnny-boy,” I said, “how goes it?” He shook my hand wholeheartedly, claiming he was extremely happy to see me. And maybe he was, who am I to say.
I snatched a glass of beer and a ﬂute of champagne from a tray-carrying mope whose Bosnianness was unquestionably signiﬁed by a crest of hair looming over his forehead. “Šta ima?” I said. “Evo,” he said. “Radim.” I downed the beer and washed it down with champagne before I entered the already crowded mingle room. I tracked down another tray-holder, who despite a mustached leathery face looked vaguely familiar, like someone who may have bullied me in high school. “Šta ima?” I asked. “Evo,” he said. “Ništa.”
Ambidextrously armed with more beer and champagne, I assumed a corner position from which I could, cougarlike, monitor the gathering. I spotted the minister of culture, resembling a bald, mangy panda, despite the fact that all the ﬁngers on both of his hands were individually bandaged—he held his champagne ﬂute between his palms like a votive candle. There were various Bosnian TV personalities, sporting their Italian spectacles and the telegenic abundance of unnecessary frowns and smirks. The writers were recognizable by the incoherence bubbling up on their stained-tie surfaces. A throng of Armani-clad businessmen swarmed around the pretty, young interpreters, while the large head of a famous retired basketball player hovered over them like a full moon. I spotted the ambassador—stout, prim, Republican, with a small, puckered-asshole mouth—talking to someone who must have been Macalister. The possible Macalister was in a purple velvet jacket over a Hawaiian shirt; his denim pants were worn out and bulging at the knees, as though he spent his days kneeling; he wore open-toe Birkenstocks with white socks; everything on him looked hand-me-down. He was in his ﬁfties but had a head of Bakelite-black hair, so unyielding it seemed it had been mounted on his head decades before and had not changed its form since. Without expressing any identiﬁable emotion, he was listening to the ambassador, who was rocking back on his heels, pursing his lips, slowly passing out a thought. Macalister was drinking water; his glass slanted slightly in his hand so the water edge repeatedly touched the brim only to retreat, in the exact rhythm of the ambassador’s rocking. I was already tipsy enough to be able to accost Macalister as soon as the ambassador left him alone. I ﬁnished my beer and champagne and was considering pursuit of a tray for the purpose of refueling, when the ambassador bellowed: “May I have your attention, please!” and the din quieted down, and the tray mopes stopped moving, and the crowd around the ambassador and Macalister spread away a bit.
“It is my great pleasure and privilege,” the ambassador vociferated, rocking in a very slow rhythm, “to welcome Dick Macalister, our great writer and—based on the little time I have spent talking to him—an even greater guy.”
We all applauded obediently. Macalister was looking down at his empty glass. He moved it from hand to hand, then slipped it into his pocket.
Some weeks before, I had received an invitation from the United States ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, His Excellency Eliot Auslander, to join him in honoring Richard Macalister, a Pulitzer Prize winner and acclaimed author. The invitation was sent to my Sarajevo address, only a week or so after I had arrived. I could not ﬁgure out how the embassy knew I was there, though I had a few elaborately paranoid ideas. It troubled me greatly that I was located as soon as I landed, for I came to Sarajevo for shelter. My plan was to stay at our family apartment for a few months and forget about a large number of things (my divorce, my breakdown, the War on Terror, everything) that had tormented me in Chicago. My parents were already in Sarajevo for their annual spring stay, and my sister was to join us upon her return from New Zealand; hence the escape to Sarajevo was beginning to feel like a depleted déjà vu of our previous life. We were exactly where we had been before the war, but everything was fantastically different—we were different; the neighbors were fewer and different; the hallway smell was different; and from our window we could see a ruin that used to be a kindergarten and now nobody cared to raze.
I wasn’t going to go to the reception; I had had enough of America and Americans to last me for another lousy lifetime. But my parents were very proud that the American ambassador was willing to welcome me at his residence. The invitation—the elaborate coat of arms, the elegant cursive, the volutes and whorls of His Excellency’s signature—recalled for them the golden years of my father’s diplomatic service and ofﬁcially elevated me into the realm of respectable adults. Father offered to let me wear his suit to the reception; he claimed it still looked good, despite its being twenty or so years old and sporting a triangular iron burn on its lapel.
I kept resisting their implorations until I went to an Internet café to read up on Richard Macalister. I had heard of him, of course, but had never read any of his books, as I seldom read contemporary American ﬁction. With an emaciated teenager to my left liquidating scores of disposable video-game civilians and a cologne-reeking gentleman to my right listlessly browsing bestiality sites, I surfed through the life and work of Dick Macalister. To cut a long story short, he was born, he lived, he wrote books, he inﬂicted suffering and occasionally suffered himself. In Fall, his most recent memoir—“a heartbreaking, clenched-jaw confession”—he owned up to his wife-abusing, extended drinking binges, and spectacular breakdowns. In the novel Depth Sickness, a loan shark shot off his foot on a hunting trip, then redeemed in recollection his vacuous, vile life while waiting for help or death, both of which arrived at approximately the same time. “Macalister seems to have never heard of the dissociation of sensibilities,” The New York Times eulogized, “for his book is a host to a whole slew of them.” I skimmed the reviews of the short story collections (one of them was called Suchness) and spent time reading about Nothing We Say, “Macalister’s masterpiece,” the winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The novel was about “a Vietnam vet who does everything to get out of war, but cannot get war out of himself.” Everybody was crazy about it. “It is hard not to be humbled by the honest brutality of Macalister’s tortured heroes,” one reviewer wrote. “These men speak little not because they have nothing to say but because the last remnants of decency in their dying hearts compel them to protect others from what they could say.” It all sounded pretty good to me, but nothing to write home about. I found a Macalister fan site, where there was a selection of passages from his works accompanied by pages upon pages of trivial exegesis. Some of the quotations were rather nice, and I wrote them down:
Before Nam, Cupper was burdened with the pointless enthusiasm of youth.
The best remedy for the stormy sky is a curtain, he said.
On the other side of the vast, milky windowpane there sauntered a crew of basketball players, their shadows like a caravan passing along the horizon.
Cupper had originally set out to save the world, but now he knew it was not worth it.
One of these days the thick chitin of the world will break open, and shit and sorrow will pour out and drown us all. Nothing we say can stop that.
I liked that one. The thick chitin of the world, that was pretty good.
We all eagerly drank to Macalister’s health and success, whereupon he was beset by a swarm of the quickest suck-ups. I stepped out to the balcony, where all the smokers were forced to congregate. I pretended I was looking for someone, stretching my neck, squinting, but whoever I was looking for did not seem to be there. Down in the valley were dotted-light streets and illuminated, rocketlike minarets; at the far fringe of the night, toward Mojmilo hill, the pitch at the Željo soccer stadium was heartbreakingly green. Nothing was moving down below, as though the city were sunk at the bottom of a sea.
When I went back in, Macalister was talking to a woman with long auburn hair, her ﬁngers lasciviously curved around a champagne ﬂute. The woman was Bosnian, identiﬁable by her meaty carmine lips and a cluster of darkened-silver necklaces and a ruby pendant struggling to sink into her bosom, and the way she touched his forearm when she spoke to him; for all I knew, I could have had a hopeless crush on her in high school. She somehow managed to smile and laugh at the same time, her brilliant teeth an annotation to her laughter, her hair merrily ﬂitting around. Macalister was burning to fuck her—I could tell from the way he leaned into her, his snout nearly touching her hair, snifﬁng her. It was jealousy, to be perfectly honest, that made me overcome my stage fright the moment the laughing woman was distracted by an embassy ﬂunky. As she turned away from Macalister, I barged right in and wedged myself between the two of them.
“So what brings you to Sarajevo?” I asked. He was shorter than I; I could smell his hairiness, a furry, feral smell. His water glass was in his hand again, still empty.
“I go places,” he said, “because there are places to go.”
He had the sharp-edged nose of an ascetic. Every now and then the muscles at the root of his jaw tightened. He kept glancing at the woman behind me, who was laughing yet again.
“I’m on a State Department tour,” he added, thereby ruining the purity of his witticism.
“And on assignment for a magazine.”
“So how do you like Sarajevo?”
“Haven’t seen much of it yet, but it reminds me of Beirut.”
But what about the Gazi Husrevbegova fountain, whose water tastes like no other in the world? What about all the minarets lighting up simultaneously at sunset on a Ramadan day? And the snow falling slowly, each ﬂake coming down patiently, separately, as if abseiling down an obscure silky thread? What about the morning clatter of wooden shutters in Bašcˇ aršija, when all the old stores are opening at the same time and the streets smell of thick-foamed coffee? The chitin of the world is still hardening here, buddy.
I get emotional when inebriated. I said none of the above, however. Instead, I said: “I’ve never been in Beirut.”
Macalister glanced at the woman behind my back, ﬂashing a helpless smile. The woman laughed liltingly, the glasses chinked; as always, the good life was elsewhere.
“I could show you some things in Sarajevo, things no tourist could see.”
“Sure,” Macalister said without conviction. I introduced myself and proceeded to deliver the usual, well-rehearsed story of displacement and writing in English, nudging him toward declaring whether he had read me or not. He nodded and smiled. He was not as committed to our conversation as I was.
“You may have read my story ‘Love and Obstacles,’ ” I said. “It was in The New Yorker not so long ago.”
“Oh yeah, ‘Love and Obstacles.’ Great story,” he said. “Will you excuse me?”
And so he left me for the red-haired woman. I guzzled the champagne and the beer, then grabbed the only glass left on a ﬂeeting tray—it was watered-down whiskey, but it would do. The woman’s hair was dyed anyway.
I kept relieving the tray-carriers of their loads. I talked to the basketball player, looking up at him until my neck hurt, inquiring unremittingly about the shot he had missed a couple of decades earlier, the shot that deprived his team of the national title and, I believed, commenced the general decline of Sarajevo. I cornered the minister of culture in order to ﬁnd out what had happened to his ﬁngers—his wife’s dress had caught ﬁre in the kitchen and he had had to strip it off her. I giggled. She had ended up with second-degree burns, he said. At some point, I tracked down my friend Johnny to impart to him that you can’t work for the U.S. government unless you are a certiﬁed asshole, to which he grinned and said, “I could get you a job tomorrow,” which I thought was not unfunny. Before I exited, I bade good-bye to Eliot Auslander by slapping him on the back and startling him, and then turned that fucking eagle to face the wall, the unfortunate consequence of which was that the snake was now hopelessly cornered. Best of luck, little reptile.
The air outside was adrizzle. The ambassador’s house was way the fuck up the hill, and you had to go downhill to get anywhere. The ﬂunkies were summoning cabs, but I wanted to air my head out, so downhill I went. The street was narrow, with no sidewalks, the upper ﬂoors of ancient houses leaning over the pavement. Across the valley, there was the caliginous Trebevic´ ; through a street-level window I saw a whole family sitting on a sofa, watching the weather forecast on TV—the sun stuck, like a coin, into a cloud ﬂoating over the map of Bosnia. I passed a peaceful police station and a freshly dead pigeon; a torn, faded poster on a condemned house announced a new CD by a bulbous half-naked singer, who, rumor had it, was fucking both the prime minister and the deputy prime minister. A tattered cat that looked like a leprechaun dog crossed my path. I turned the corner and saw, far ahead, Macalister and the redhead strolling toward the vanishing point, her hair brushing her shoulders as she turned to him to listen, his hand occasionally touching the small of her back to guide her around potholes and puddles.
I was giddy, scurrying up, thinking of funny things to say, my mind never quite reaching over to the other, funny side. I was giddy and drunk, slipping on the wet pavement and in need of company, and I trotted downhill after them, slipping, yet lucidly avoiding the holes and litter and a garbage container in which garbage quietly smoldered. Once I caught up with them, I just assumed their pace and walked along as straight as I could, saying nothing, which was somehow supposed to be funny too. Macalister uttered an un-enthusiastic “Hey, you’re okay?” and the woman said, “Dobro veče,” with a hesitation in her voice that suggested that I was interrupting something delectable and delicate. I just kept walking, skidding and stumbling, but in control, I was in control, I was. I did not know where we were, but they seemed to be headed somewhere.
“Anyway,” Macalister said. “There is blowing of the air, but there is no wind that does the blowing.”
“What wind?” I said. “There’s no wind.”
“There is a path to walk on, there is walking being done, but there is no walker.”
“That is very beautiful,” the woman said, smiling. She exuded a nebula of mirth. All of her consonants were as soft as the underside of a kitten’s paw.
“There are deeds being done, but there is no doer,” Macalister went on.
“What the hell are you talking about?” I asked. The toes of his white socks were caked with ﬁlth now.
“Malo je on puk’o,” I suggested to the woman. “Nije, baš lijepo zbori,” she said. “It is poetry.” “It’s from a Buddhist text,” he said.
“It is beautiful,” the woman said.
“There is drizzle and there is shit to be rained on, but there is no sky,” I pronounced.
“That could work too,” Macalister said.
The drizzle made the city look begrimed. A couple of glistening umbrellas cascaded downhill toward the scarce trafﬁc ﬂow of Titova Street. At the low end of Dalmatinska, you would take a right, then walk straight for about ten minutes, past Veliki Park and the Alipašina mosque, past the fenced-off vacant lot where the old hospital used to be, and then you reached Marin Dvor, and across the street from the ruin that used to be the tobacco factory used to be the building where I was born.
“You’re okay, Macalister,” I said. “You’re a good guy. You’re not an asshole.”
“Why, thank you,” Macalister said. “I’m glad I’ve been vetted.”
We reached the bottom of Dalmatinska and stopped there. Had I not been there, Macalister would have suggested to the woman that they spend more time together, perhaps in his hotel room, perhaps attached at the groin. But I was there and I wasn’t leaving, and there was an awkward silence as they waited for me to at least step away so they could exchange poignant parting words. I snapped the silence and suggested that we all go out for a drink. Macalister looked straight into her eyes and said, “Yeah, let’s go out for a drink,” his gaze doubtless conveying that they could ditch me quickly and continue their discussion of Buddhism and groin attachment. But the woman said no, she had to go home, she was really tired, she had to go to work early, she’d love to but she was tired, no, sorry. She shook my hand limply and gave Macalister a hug, in the course of which she pressed her sizable chest against his. I did not even know her name. She went toward Marin Dvor.
“What’s her name?” I asked.
Macalister watched her wistfully as she ran to catch an approaching streetcar.
“Azra,” he said.
“Let’s have a drink,” I said. “You’ve got nothing else to do anyway, now that Azra’s gone.”
Honestly, I would have punched me in the face, or at least hurled some hurtful insults my way, but not only did Macalister not do it, he did not express any hostility whatsoever and agreed to come along for a drink. It must have been his Buddhist thing or something.
We went toward Baščaršija—I pointed out to him the Eternal Fire, which was supposed to be burning for the antifascist liberators of Sarajevo, but happened to be out at the moment; then, farther down Ferhadija, we stopped at the site of the 1992 bread-line massacre, where there was a heap of wilted ﬂowers; then passed Writers’ Park, where busts of important Bosnian authors were hidden behind stalls offering pirate DVDs. We passed the cathedral, then Egipat, which made the best ice cream in the world, then the Gazi Husrevbegova mosque and the fountain. I told him about the song that asserted that once you drank Baščaršija water you would never forget Sarajevo. We drank the water; he lapped it out of the palm of his small hand, the water splattering his white socks.
“I love your white socks, Macalister,” I said. “When you take them off, don’t throw them away. Give them to me. I’ll keep them as a relic, smell them for good luck whenever I write.”
“I never take them off,” he said. “That’s my only pair.”
For a moment, I considered the possibility that he was serious, for his delivery was deadpan, no crack signals in the air. It seemed he was looking out at me and the city from an interior space no other human had access to. I did not know exactly where we were going, but he did not complain or ask questions, as though it didn’t matter, because he would always be safe inside himself. I confess: I wanted him be in awe of Sarajevo, of me, of what we meant in the world; I wanted to break through to him, through his chitin.
But I was hungry and needed a drink or two, so instead of wandering all night, we ended up in a smoky basement restaurant whose owner, Faruk, was a war hero—there was a shoulder missile-launcher hanging high up on the brick wall, and pictures of uniformed men below it. I knew Faruk pretty well, for he had dated my sister many years before. He greeted us, spread apart the rope curtain leading into the dining room and took us to our table, next to a glass case with a shiny black gun and a holster.
“Ko ti je to?” Faruk asked as we sat down.
“Pisac. Amerikanac. Dobio Pulitzera,” I said.
“Pulitzer je dosta jak,” Faruk said, and offered his hand to Macalister: “Congratulations.”
Macalister thanked him, but when Faruk walked away, he noted the preponderance of weapons.
“Weapons schmeapons,” I said. “The war is over. Don’t worry about it.”
A waiter, who looked like a twin brother of one of the tray mopes, came by, and I ordered a trainload of food—all varieties of overcooked meat and fried dough—and a bottle of wine, without asking Macalister what he would like. He was vegetarian and didn’t drink, he said impassively, merely stating a fact.
“So you’re a Buddhist or something?” I said. “You don’t step on ants and roaches, you don’t swallow midges and such?”
He smiled. I had known Macalister for only a few hours, but I already knew he did not get angry. How can you write a book—how can you write a single goddamn sentence— without getting angry? I wondered. How do you even wake up in the morning without getting angry? I get angry in my dreams, wake up furious. He merely shrugged at my questions. I drank more wine and then some more, and whatever coherence I may have regained on our walk was quickly gone. I showered him with questions: Did he serve in Vietnam? How much of his work was autobiographical? Was Cupper his alter ego? Was it over there that he had become a Buddhist? What was getting the Pulitzer like? Did he ever have a feeling that this was all shit—this: America, humankind, writing, everything? And what did he think of Sarajevo? Did he like it? Could he see how beautiful it had been before it became this cesspool of insigniﬁcant, drizzly suffering?
Macalister talked to me, angerlessly. Occasionally I had a hard time following him, not least because Faruk sent over another bottle, allegedly his best wine, and I kept swilling it. Macalister had been in Vietnam, he had experienced nothing ennobling there. He was not Buddhist, he was “Buddhistish.” And the Pulitzer made him vainglorious—“vainglorious” was the word he used—and now he was ashamed of it all a bit; any serious writer ought to be humiliated and humbled by fame. When he was young, like me, he said, he used to think that all the great writers knew something he didn’t. He thought that if he read their books they would teach him something, make him better; he thought he would acquire what they had: the wisdom, the truth, the wholeness, the real shit. He was burning to write, he wanted to break through to that fancy knowledge, he was hungry for it. But now he knew that that hunger was vainglorious; now he knew that writers knew nothing, really; most of them were just faking it. He knew nothing. There was nothing to know, nothing on the other side. There was no walker, no path, just walking. This was it, whoever you were, wherever you were, whatever it was, and you had to make peace with that fact.
“This?” I asked. “What is ‘this’?”
He talked more and more as I was sinking into oblivion, slurring the few words of concession and agreement and fascination I could utter. I would not remember most of the things he talked about, but as drunk as I was, it was clear to me that his sudden, sincere verbosity was due to his sense that our encounter—our writerly one-night stand—was a ﬂeeting one. He even helped me totter up the stairs as we were leaving the restaurant, and ﬂagged a cab for me. But I would not get into it, no sir, before he believed me that I would read all of his books, all of them, all that he had written, hack magazine jobs, blurbs, everything, and when he ﬁnally believed, I wanted him to swear that he would come over to my place, have lunch at my home with me and my parents, because he was family now, one of us, he was an honorary Sarajevan, and I made him write down our phone number and promise that he would call, tomorrow, ﬁrst thing in the morning. I would have made him promise some other things, but the street cleaners were approaching with their blasting hoses and the cabdriver honked impatiently and I had to go, and off I went, drunk and high on bonding with one of the greatest writers of our embarrassing shit-ass time. By the time I arrived home, I didn’t think I would ever see him again.
But he called, ladies and gentlemen of prestigious literary prize committees; to his eternal credit he kept his promise and called the very next morning, as I was staring at the ceiling, my eyeballs bobbling on a hangover scum pond. It was not even ten o’clock, for Buddha’s sake, yet Mother walked into my room, bent over the ﬂoor mattress to enter my painful ﬁeld of vision and give me the handset without a word. When he said, “It’s Dick,” I frankly did not know what he was talking about. “Dick Macalister,” he said; it took me a moment to remember who he was. Furthermore, it felt as though I had returned to America and the whole Sarajevo escape was but a limp dream, and in short, I was afraid.
“So at what time should I come over?” he asked.
“Come over where?”
“Come over for lunch.”
Let me skip all the uhms and ahms and all the words I fumbled as I struggled to reassemble my thinking apparatus, until I ﬁnally and arbitrarily selected the three-o’clock hour as our lunchtime. There was no negotiation. Richard Macalister was coming to eat my mother’s food; he offered no explanation or reason; he did not sound excessively warm or excited. I did not think that anything that had happened the night before could lead to any friendship, substantial or otherwise—the most I could ever hope for was a future tepid blurb from him. I had no idea what it was that he might want from us. But I spelled out our address for him so he could give it to a cabbie, warned him against paying more than ten convertible marks, and told him that the building was right behind the kindergarten ruin. I hung up the phone; Dick Macalister was coming.
In my pajamas I stood exposed to the glare of my parents’ morning judgment (they did not like it when I drank) and, with the aid of a handful of aspirin, informed them that Richard Macalister, an august American author, a winner of a Pulitzer Prize, an abstemious vegetarian, and a serious candidate for a full-time Buddhist, was coming over for lunch at three o’clock. After a moment of silent discombobulation, my mother reminded me that our regular lunchtime was one-thirty. But when I shrugged to indicate helplessness, she sighed and went on to inspect the supplies in the fridge and the freezer chest. Presently she started issuing deployment orders: my father was to go to the produce market with a list, right now; I was to brush my teeth and, before any coffee or breakfast, hurry to the supermarket to buy bread, keﬁr, or whatever it was that vegetarians drank, and also vacuum cleaner bags; she was going to start preparing pie dough. By the time she was clearing the table where she would spread the dough and thin it out with a rolling pin, my headache and apprehension had gone away. Let the American come with all his might, we were going to be ready for him.
Macalister arrived wearing the same clothes he had worn the night before—the velvet jacket, the Hawaiian shirt—in combination with a pair of snakeskin boots. My parents made him take the boots off. He did not complain or try to get out of it, even as I unsuccessfully attempted to arrange a dispensation for him. “It is normal custom,” Father said. “Bosnian custom.” Sitting on a low, shaky stool, Macalister grappled with his boots, bending his ankles to the point of fracture. Finally, he exposed his blazingly white tube socks and lined up his boots against the wall, like a good soldier. Our apartment was small, socialist size, but Father pointed the way to him as though the dining room were at the far horizon and they needed to get there before the night set in.
Macalister followed the direction with a benevolent smile, possibly bemused by my father’s histrionics. Our dining room was also a living room and a TV room, and Father seated Macalister in the chair at the dining table that faced the television set. He was given the seat that had always been contentious in my family, for the person sitting there could watch television while eating, but I don’t think Macalister recognized the honor bestowed upon him. CNN was on, but the sound was off. Our guest sat down, still appearing bemused, and tucked his feet under the chair, curling up his toes.
“Drink?” Father said. “Viski? Loza?”
“No whiskey,” Macalister said. “What is loza?”
“Loza is special drink,” Father said. “Domestic.”
“It’s grappa,” I explained.
“No, thanks. Water is just ﬁne.”
“Water. What water? Water is for animals,” Father said. “I’m an alcoholic,” Macalister said. “I don’t drink alcohol.”
“One drink. For appetite,” Father said, opening the bottle of loza and pouring it into a shot glass. He put it in front of him. “It is medicine, good for you.”
“I’ll take that,” I said, and snatched it before Macalister’s benevolence evaporated; I needed it anyway.
My mother brought in a vast platter with cut-up smoked meat and sheep cheese perfectly arrayed, toothpicks sticking out like little ﬂagpoles without ﬂags. Then she returned to the kitchen to fetch another couple of plates lined with pieces of spinach pie and potato pie, the crust so crisp as to look positively chitinous.
“No meat,” Mother said. “Vegetation.” “Vegetarian,” I corrected her.
“No meat,” she said.
“Thank you,” Macalister said.
“You have little meat,” Father said, swallowing a slice. “Not going to kill you.”
Then came a basket of fragrant bread and a deep bowl brimming with mixed vegetable salad.
“Wow,” Macalister said.
“That’s nowhere near the whole thing,” I said. “You’ll have to eat until you explode.”
On the soundless TV there were pictures from Baghdad—two men were carrying a torn-up corpse with a steak tartare–like mess instead of a face, the butt grazing the pavement. American soldiers up to their gills in bulletproof gear pointed their riﬂes at a ramshackle door. A clean-shaven, suntanned general stated something inaudible to us. From his seat, Father glanced sideways at the screen, still munching the meat. He turned toward Macalister, pointed his hand at his chest, and asked: “Do you like Bush?” Macalister looked at me—the same fucking bemused smile stuck on his face—to determine whether this was a joke. I shook my head: alas, it was not. I had not expected Macalister’s visit to turn into such a complete disaster so quickly.
“Tata, nemoj,” I said. “Pusti čovjeka.”
“I think Bush is a gaping asshole,” Macalister said, unfazed. “But I like America and I like democracy. People are entitled to their mistakes.”
“Stupid American people,” Father said, and put another slice of meat into his mouth.
Macalister laughed, for the ﬁrst time since I’d met him. He slanted his head to the side and let out a deep, chesty growl of a laugh. In shame, I looked around the room, as though I had never seen it. The souvenirs from our African years: the fake-ebony ﬁgurines, the screechingly colorful wicker bowls, a carved elephant tusk, a malachite ashtray containing entangled paper clips and Mother’s amber pendants; a lace handiwork whose delicate patterns were violated by prewar coffee stains; the carpet with an angular-horse pattern; all these familiar things that had survived the war and displacement. I had grown up in this apartment, and now all of it seemed old, coarse, and anguished.
Father went on relentlessly with his interrogation: “You win Pulitzer Prize?”<
“Yes, sir,” Macalister said. I admired him for putting up with it.
“You wrote good book,” Father said. “You hard worked.”
Macalister smiled and looked down at his hand. He was embarrassed, perfectly devoid of vainglory. He straightened his toes and then curved them even deeper inward.
“Tata, nemoj,” I pleaded.
“Pulitzer Prize, big prize,” Father said. “Are you rich?”
Abruptly, it dawned on me what he was doing—he used to interrogate my girlfriends this way to ascertain whether they were good for me. When they called or stopped by, not heeding my desperate warnings, he would submit them to a brutal series of questions. What school did they go to? Where did their parents work? What was their grade point average? How many times a week did they plan to see me? I tried to forbid his doing that, I warned the girlfriends, even coached them in what they should say. He wanted to make sure that I was making the right decisions, that I was going in the right direction.
“No, I’m not rich. Not at all,” Macalister said. “But I manage.”
“Why you are not rich?”
Macalister gave out another generous laugh, but before he could answer, Mother walked in carrying the ﬁnal dish: a roasted leg of lamb and a crowd of potato halves drowning in fat.
“Mama!” I cried, “Pa rek’o sam ti da je vegetarijanac.” “Nemoj da vičeš. On može krompira.”
“That’s okay,” Macalister said, as though he understood. “I’ll just have some potatoes.”
Mother grabbed his still-empty plate and put four large potatoes on it, followed by a few pieces of pie and some salad and bread, until the plate was heaping with food, all of it soaked in the fat that came with the potatoes. I was on the verge of tears; it seemed that insult upon insult was being launched at our guest; I even started regretting the previous night’s affronts, at least those I could remember. But Macalister did not object, or try to stop her—he succumbed to us, to who we were.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said.
I poured another shot of loza for myself, then went to the kitchen to get some beer.
“Dosta si pio,” Mother said, but I ignored her.
My father cut the meat, then sloshed the thick, juicy slices in the fat before depositing them on our respective plates. “Meat is good,” he said to no one in particular. Macalister politely waited for everyone else to start eating, then began chipping away at the pile before him. The food on Father’s plate was neatly organized into taste units—the meat and potatoes on one side, the mixed salad on the other, the pie at the top. He proceeded to exterminate his food, morsel by morsel, not uttering a word, not setting down his fork and knife for a moment, staring down at his plate, only to look up at the TV screen now and then. We ate in silence, as though the meal were a job to be done, thoroughly and quickly.
Macalister held his fork in his right hand, the knife unused, chewing slowly. I was mortiﬁed imagining what this— this meal, this apartment, this family—looked like to him, what he made of our small, crowded existence, of our unsophisticated dishes designed for ever hungry people, of the loss that ﬂickered in everything we did or didn’t do. With all the cheap African crap and all the faded pictures and all the random remnants of our prewar reincarnation, this home was the museum of our lives, and it was no Louvre, let me tell you. I was fretting over his judgment, expecting condescension at best, contempt at worst. I was ready to hate him. He munched his allotment slowly, restoring his benevolent half-smile after every morsel.
He liked the coffee, he loved the banana cake; he washed down each forkful with a sip from his demitasse; he actually grunted with pleasure. “I am so full I will never eat again,” he said. “You’re an excellent cook, ma’am. Thank you very much.”
“It is good food, natural, no American food, no cheeseburger,” Mother said.
“I will ask you question,” Father said. “You must tell truth.”
“Don’t answer,” I said. “You don’t have to answer.” Macalister must have thought I was joking, for he said: “Shoot.”
“My son is writer, you are writer. You are good, you win Pulitzer.”
I knew exactly what was coming.
“Tell me, is he good? Be objective,” Father said, pronouncing the word “obyective.”
“Nemoj, tata,” I begged, but he was unrelenting. Mother was looking at Macalister with expectation. I poured myself another drink.
“It takes a while to become a good writer,” Macalister said. “I think he’s well on his way.”
“He always like to read,” Mother said.
“Everything else, lazy,” Father said. “But always read books.”
“When he was young man, he always wrote poesy. Sometimes I ﬁnd his poems, and I cry,” Mother said.
“I’m sure he was talented,” Macalister said. Perhaps Macalister had in fact read something I wrote. Perhaps it was that I was drunk, for I was holding back tears.
“Do you have children?” Mother asked him.
“No,” Macalister said. “Actually, yes. He lives with his mother in Hawaii. I am not a good father.”
“It is not easy,” my father said. “Always worry.”
“No,” Macalister said. “I would never say it’s easy.”
Mother reached across the table for my hand, tugged it to her lips, and kissed it warmly.
At which point I stood up and left the room.
He had drunk water from Baščaršija, but he had no trouble forgetting Sarajevo. Not even a postcard did he ever send us; once he was gone from our lives, he was gone for good. For a while, every time we talked on the phone Father asked me if I had spoken with my friend Macalister, and I never had, whereupon Father would suggest it would be good for me to stay friends with him. Invariably, I had to explain that we had never been and never would be friends. “Americans are cold,” Mother diagnosed the predicament.
I did go to see him when he came to Chicago to read at the library. I sat in a back row, far from the stage, well beyond the reach of his gaze. He wore the same Birkenstocks and white socks, but the shirt was no longer Hawaiian. It was ﬂannel now, and there were blotches of gray in his Bakelite hair. Time does nothing but hand you down shabbier and older things.
He read from Nothing We Say, a passage in which Cupper ﬂipped out in a mall, tore a public phone off the wall, and then beat a security guard well beyond unconscious with the handset, until he found himself surrounded by the police aiming guns at him:
The feral eyes beyond the cocked guns glared at Cupper. His hand was suspended midair over the security guard, the blood-washed earpiece ready to break the man’s face completely open. The security guard whimpered and gurgled up a couple of pink bubbles. The cops were screaming at him, but Cupper could hear nothing—they opened and closed their mouths like dying ﬁsh. He recognized they were burning to shoot him, and it was their zeal that made him want to live. He wanted them to keep being bothered by his existence. He straightened up, dropped the earpiece, pressed his hands against the nape of his neck. The ﬁrst kick rolled him off to the side. The second kick broke his ribs. The third one made him groan with pleasure. He turned them to hating his guts.
Macalister lowered his voice to make it more hoarse and smoky; he kept lowering it as the violence increased. Somebody gasped; the woman next to me leaned forward and put her bejeweled hand on her mouth in a delicate gesture of horror. I didn’t, of course, wait in line so he could sign my book; I didn’t have Nothing We Say with me. But I watched him as he looked up at his enthralled readers, pressing his book against their chests like a found child, leaning over the table so they could be closer to him. He smiled at them steadfastly, unﬂinchingly—nothing they said or did could unmoor him. I was convinced I had receded into worldly irrelevance for him; I had no access to the Buddhistish realms in which he operated with his cold metaphysical disinterest.
But I followed his work avidly; you could say I became dedicated. I read and reread Nothing We Say and all of his old books; on his website I signed up for updates on his readings and publications; I collected magazines that published his interviews. I felt I had some intimate knowledge of him, and I wanted to see how he turned what I knew into words. I was hoping to detect traces of us in his writing, as though that would conﬁrm our evanescent presence in the world, much as the existence of subatomic phenomena is proven by the short-lived presence of hypothetical particles.
Finally, not so long ago, his latest novel, The Noble Truths of Suffering, came out. From the ﬁrst page, I liked Tiny Walker, the typically Macalisterian main character: an ex-Marine who would have been a hero of the battle of Fallujah, had he not been dishonorably discharged for not corroborating the ofﬁcial story of the rape and murder of a twelve-year-old Iraqi girl and her entire family, an unfortunate instance of miscommunication with local civilians. Tiny returns home to Chicago (of all places!) and spends time visiting his old haunts on the North Side, trying vainly to drink himself into stupor, out of turpitude. He has nothing to say to the people he used to know, he breaks shot glasses against their low foreheads. The city barked at him and he snarled back. High out of his mind, he has a vision of a snake invasion and torches his studio and everything he owns in it, which is not much. A ﬂashback that turns into a nightmare suggests that he was the one who slit the girl’s throat. Lamia Hassan was her name. She speaks to him in unintelligibly accented English.
He wakes up on a bus to Janesville, Wisconsin. Only upon arrival does he realize that he is there to visit the family of Sergeant Briggs, a psychopath bastard whose idea it was to rape Lamia. He ﬁnds the house, knocks on the door, but there is nobody, only a TV with a kids’ show on: Soundlessly, facing the drawing of the sun on the wall, the children sang. Tiny stumbles upon a nearby bar and drinks with the locals, who buy him booze as an expression of support to our men and women in uniform. He tells them that Sergeant Briggs, a genuine American hero, was one of his best buddies in Iraq. He also tells them about Declan, who was like a brother to him. Declan got shot by a sniper, and Briggs dragged him home under ﬁre, got his knee shot off. At the bar, the booze keeps coming, for they are all proud of their boy Briggs. They want to hear more about what it was like over there, and Tiny tells them not to trust the newspapers, or the cocksuckers who say that we are losing the war. “We are tearing new holes in the ass of the world,” he says. “We are breaking it open.”
Outside, snow is piling up. Tiny steals a pickup truck parked outside the joint and goes to Sergeant Briggs’s house. This time, he does not knock on the door. He goes around to the back, where he exposes himself—hard and red, his dick throbbing—to a little girl who is rolling up a big snowball. The girl smiles and looks at him calmly, untroubled by his presence, as though she were ﬂoating in her own aquarium. He zips himself up and walks back to the truck, stepping gingerly into his own footprints.
In the stolen pickup, he drives farther north, to the Upper Peninsula. Declan came from Iron Mountain. Declan is dead, it turns out, but Tiny talks to him as he drives through a snowstorm. Declan lost his mind after the unfortunate instance. Briggs forced him to get on top of the girl, taunted him when he could not penetrate her. Tiny watched over him afterward, because Declan was ripe for suicide. And then he deliberately walked into an ambush, shooting from the hip. Briggs dragged home a corpse.
In the midst of a blinding blizzard, a bloody wall, ten foot tall, emerges before Tiny. He brakes before he hits it. He steps out of the pickup and walks through the wall, like a ghost. He arrives in Iron Mountain in the middle of the night. He wakes up freezing in a vast parking lot. Everywhere he looked, there was nothing but immaculate whiteness. His clothes are soaked in blood, though he has no cuts or wounds on his body. He rubs the stains with snow, but the blood has already crusted.
He ﬁnds Declan’s parents’ house. Before he rings the bell, he notices that in the trunk of his pickup is a gigantic deer with intricate antlers, the side torn open. Tiny can see the animal’s insides, pale and thoroughly dead. The deer’s eyes stuck wide open, as big as paperweights.
Declan’s parents know who Tiny is, Declan spoke about him. They are ancient and tired, tanned with deep grief. They want Tiny to stay for dinner. Declan’s mother gives him her son’s old shirt, far too big for him. She hasn’t washed it since Declan left. Tiny changes in an upstairs room that smells sickeningly of apple-and-honeysuckle Air Wick. On the walls are faded photos of African landscapes: a herd of elephants strolling toward sunset; a small pirogue with a silhouette of a rower on a vast river.
But it was only when they sat down to eat that I recognized Declan’s mother and father as my parents. The old man asks incessant questions about Iraq and war, keeps pouring bourbon into Tiny’s glass over Mother’s objections. Mother keeps bringing in the same food—meat and potatoes and, instead of spinach and potato, apple and rhubarb pies. She insists that Tiny drink water, for she can see that he is too drunk already. Father segregates his food on the plate. There is absolutely no doubt—everything bespeaks my parents, the way they talked, the way they ate, the way Declan’s mother grabs Tiny’s hand and kisses it, pressing her lips into the ghost of Declan’s hand. Tiny is suddenly ravenous, and he eats and eats. He slips into telling them about the unfortunate instance of miscommunication with local civilians, but leaves Declan out of it. He blames himself, tells them the gory details of the rape—Lamia’s throaty moan, the ﬂapping of her skinny arms, the blood pouring out of her—and the old man listens to him unﬂinchingly, while Mother goes to the kitchen to fetch coffee. They don’t seem to be troubled, as though they did not hear him at all. For an instant, he thinks that he might not be speaking, that it is all in his head, but then realizes that there is nothing inside them, nothing except grief. Other people’s children are of no concern to them, for there was no horror in the world outside Declan’s eternal absence from it. Mother cuts a piece of each pie, the crusts breaking, and puts the slices on a clean plate. Tiny is sobbing.
“Let me ask you a question,” the old man said. “You must tell me the truth.”
“My son was a soldier. You’re a soldier.”
Tiny knew exactly what was coming. Let it come, he was now ready.
“Tell me, was he a good man, a good soldier?” The old man lurched forward and touched Tiny’s shoulder. His hand was cold. Outside, snow was slowly falling. Each ﬂake came down patiently, abseiling down an obscure silky rope.
“It takes a while to become a good soldier,” Tiny said. “Declan was good. He was a good man.”