An Irregular Column
for MRR 321, February 2010
by Mykel Board
"I do not take any pleasure in suffering the torments of travel merely so that I could dine out on them.”--Paul Theroux
It's amazing how easily my thumb slips into my right nostril. How it perfectly conforms to the skin inside. Better than an ice scraper on a windshield. It scales the inside nasal wall as New York's pollution collects under the fingernail. A little twist... a pinch... a pull. A bloody booger comes out with two hairs crossed through the middle.
Yeah, I'm back in THE CITY. My trip to Albania behind me. Gone. But far from being forgotten, despite my creeping senility. Last week I wrote about being tricked by a mysterious bus rider, into a spooky house? Hotel? Abattoir? “You can stay at my place,” he mimed, unable to speak a word of English, and my Albanian limited to less than a hundred words.Now, I'm in a room that only locks from the outside. I'm in the middle of the countryside, on a hill, in Albania. I don't know how to get to anywhere from here. I don't even know where here is. My tormentor's only motive for keeping me like this has to be torture and then (mercifully?) murder.
Then I wake up.
I must have drifted off yet again, because I'm again awakened. This time by the sound of the glass door sliding open. There he is, my abductor, impossibly old, pillow-shaped, face frozen into a perpetual frown. He carries a large cup of coffee and more fruit.
I understand why he asked me how long I'm staying. He hates what he has to do, and wants to postpone it until the last possible minute. I could escape, maybe. But I'm so far out of town, so lost, how would I ever get anywhere? And he'd see me with my backpack. That'd be a... er... dead giveaway.
He tells me his name. Cocho. I'm horrible with names, but somehow I feel if I don't remember this one, I'll be in even worse trouble. It becomes the most important task of my life to remember it. Let's see: Ocho is eight in Spanish. Co-means together like co-worker or cooperate. Two eights together. I fix the image in my mind and superimpose it over his face.
I take out my camera and motion that I want to take his picture. I figure when my remains wash up on shore, they'll find the camera and catch the guy. Surprisingly, he agrees. I guess he'll dispose of the camera when he disposes of me.
After the photos, he points out to the sea. He asks if I'm going to go swimming. I tell him it's too cold. He says maybe tomorrow. I say, “No I'm leaving tomorrow.”I can see the sadness in his face when I make it clear I'm not staying another day. The longer he can wait, the better. I know he doesn't want to do this, but he's got to. And now, it has to be tonight.
Dua te shikoj Himara. (I want to see (the town of) Himara.), I tell him.
I'm not thinking clearly. Even if I manage to get into town, I could never find my way back to his place. I get lost in Soho, for God's sake. And I can't take all my bags with me. He'd know. I have to come back here.
He points to me, then himself, and then makes a two-fingers-next-to-each-other sign that means together. Ok, we'll go together. People will see us. When they find the body, they'll be suspicious.
At least that will get me back to the death chamber.
So together we climb the stairs to the alley that leads to the tunnel that leads to the ditch that leads to the stone steps that lead to the road where the bus will come to take us to Himara. We wait for a bit. The bus does not come.
I take a picture of the stone staircase, another of the garage door close to it, another of a sign that says QEPARO FSHAT, right near the descent from the highway. Qeparo is the name of this tiny village. I have no idea what “fshat” means, but maybe some cab or bus driver will recognize the sign. Besides, if I escape, like that girl in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I can use the photos as clues for the cops to find Albania's Ed Gein. Still, the bus doesn't come.
A car pulls out of a nearby driveway, off the main road. Slowly, it makes its way to the outer street. Cocho walks over and signals the man to stop. They have a conversation. Cocho opens the front and back doors of the car. He motions for me to get in the rear. I do. Then he closes both doors and waves good-bye. We head into town.
The driver lets me and another passenger off at the post office. I look up the word return in the Albanian-English dictionary: kthim.
Ku kthim? I ask him. (When return?)
He shows me two fingers, one bent halfway. I guess that means in an hour and a half. I figure he'll park his cab here and return to it when it's time to leave. That doesn't give me much time, but I can buy some stamps and mail my postcards, go for a stroll down the beach, look at the ocean, have a last cup of coffee before I die. I figure wrong.
When I get out of the post office, the cab is gone.
I'll never find my way back now. My bags, most of my money is with Cocho. My computer, too. I know the only logic is death, but what if I'm missing something? What if he's just this nice eccentric old coot who really does want to take care of me? It's not logical (or true, it turns out), but what if?
I walk to a taxi stand near the post office. Maybe my driver will be there. He isn't.
Most of the cabs are empty. In the only one with a driver, the driver is asleep on the front seat with the door open and one leg out of the cab. Knowing my own consciousness on just awakening, I decide not to wake him for the drive.
Taksi? he says.
Ju dini ketu? I ask. (You know here?)
He squints at the picture and then shakes his head. “Po (yes),” he says. Then he says 13 Euros in English. I try to bargain, but he sticks to the price.
Taxi-meter he says.
During the ride, he never turns on the taxi-meter.
A strange kind of trance music comes from someplace. It's like a pop version of Phillip Glass. I've never heard it before. It may be what's popular these days. I'm out of touch. But it sounds spooky to me.
I walk down some steps, through a tunnel, another tunnel, past a ditch, through an alley. I see a pile of bricks I never saw before. A door with a large round knocker... never saw it before either. I'm lost.
I turn to retrace my steps. An old man comes the other way.
“Cocho?” I ask him.He laughs, and points back where I came from. Then he makes a downward motion with his hands, and a sweeping curve with his arm. I retrace my steps, and soon get lost again.
I pick a downhill path. The music is louder here, more menacing than mellow. Like a horror movie soundtrack. I follow the path until it ends... dead ends. Then I go up a little and take another path through a bunch of fruitplants, and then down again. Sand, plastic debris, I've found the sea.
Turning my back to it, I scan the houses. There it is. Blue, in its glory, ready to fall with me, into the sea. I head right for it, up the path to the lower gate to the house. I know this gate, Cocho took me through it yesterday, to show me the fruit and the way to the beach. I'm sure this is the way back to the house.
The gate is locked.
I do not scream. I do not pound on it. Instead, I keep the house in view, and go up through the trees, catching my sleeve on a cactus, then pulling free. The music continues, insistent, droning. Up to a small trail. I've lost sight of the house, but I think I know where it is. I follow the path. The house comes into view again. I can see it slightly below and to the right. I reach the set of steps I recognize. They lead down toward the house. They end at a gate.
The gate is not locked.
I walk through it and escape into my room. It's warm. I collapse on one of the two beds in the room and fall into a dreamless sleep.
I awaken when it's still light outside. There is a rattle as the glass door slides open. Cocho brings a tray with more figs and other strange fruit on it. Much of the fruit from yesterday lies rotting by the sink. He doesn't seem to notice. He moves the food in smooth motions, like a robot. Gliding the tray to the plastic table in my room.
He makes an eating motion, putting his hands to his lips.
Bukë? (Bread?), he asks.
Po (yes), I say. I need something besides all that fruit. It just goes right through me. I'll be a pretty messy corpse. He'll deserve it.
“Did you take a shower yet?” he mimes. “Yo (no),” I say.He shrugs, goes away and comes back with a couple slices of bread and a few cubes of cheese. He also brings about a cupful of cold spaghetti with tomato sauce. Everything looks homemade. Too homemade.
Then he goes away for a bit and I write a little more. As the sun is setting over the Adriatic, he returns. He looks grim.
Opening the sliding glass door, he takes a chair and puts in next to mine.
The miming starts again. You eat. You sleep. Now you pay. I recognize the Albanian word. Pagoni. You pay.
“Pay with my life?” I don't ask.He holds up one finger. A thousand Lek?? That's ten dollars. Hah, that's wonderful. I give him two thousand.
“You're my friend (I use the Italian word amici, since it was a word I never needed in Albanian),” I say. “Take more.”
He nods NO.I don't understand.
He shows me with more miming. His face never changing: One night, four thousand lek. Two nights, eight thousand.
That's robbery. That's more than I paid in my Jacuzzi hotel in Vlora. This is a haunted house! $80, that's ridiculous. I'm not going to... Yeah, right.
I hand him the money. It's most of what I have left. But, he's only robbing me! He won't kill me. It's just extortion. He's a hustler, a con artist, not a murderer. Take my money, please! I could kiss the guy.
I ask him what time the bus leaves for Saranda tomorrow. He tells me 9AM. I say I'll get up at 8. Too late, he says.
OK, I tell him. Statë ore. Seven o'clock.
I set my cellphone alarm (that's all it's good for, it can't make calls here) for 6:30. I want time to clean myself up and empty out all the fruit.
At 6:15 Cocho opens the door to wake me up. He stands and watches as I get dressed, stuff my remaining clothes into my pack and go out the door with him. He leads me back upstairs through the alleys and ditches to the road.
My bus comes and I get on it. He does not say good bye. I watch him cross the street to go back to Vlora, where he found me.
ENDNOTES: [email subscribers (firstname.lastname@example.org) or website viewers (www.mykelboard.com) will get live links and a chance to post comments on the column]
-->Somehow it sounds like propaganda dept: Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal reports that the family of a protester in Iran was told that they had to pay a $3000 BULLET FEE-- a fee for the bullet used by security forces-- before they'd get the body of their son.
I don't believe it. Sounds like the Saddam Hussein dead babies stories, or the Qadaffi drag stories. Or the Japanese-women-built-differently stories, during a much earlier war.
-->Democracy Now, yeah right dept: Democracy Now, a liberal magazine, complains that a Tennessee Republican State Senator refused to fire a staffer who sent out a racist image of President Obama. The staffer sent out an email with images of all the Presidents. Obama was in the bottom right hand corner-- only a pair of bright white eyes on a black background.
It was Nat Hentoff who wrote the book "Free speech for me, but not for thee." Go Nat! Now more than ever!
-->Clark University, in enlightened Worcester Massachusetts, canceled a talk by Norman Finkelstein who is both a Holocaust scholar and critic of Israel's occupation of the West Bank. The reason for the cancellation? The university said the talk "would invite controversy."
I say, what the fuck are universities for if not to invite controversy?
-->Also from Massachusetts dept:, a bill in the legislature proposes to criminalize nude pictures of people over 60 and people who are disabled. Why? For their own protection, of course. We can't have old people or cripples thinking about sex... or even nudity, can we? It just wouldn't be... er... liberal?
-->1984 Redux dept: Many people who read their books with Amazon's kindle e-book reader suddenly found that Amazon had deleted copies of George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm from the device... even after they purchased it. The reasons are obscure, but just that they CAN do this, should scare people back to paper. But then again, paper can be deleted too. Fahrenheit 451 anybody?
-->It's all happening in South America dept: Lawmakers in Uruguay approved a bill to legalize gay adoption. It's not finished yet, but it should become law later this year. In the same week, the Argentinean Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to punish anybody for possession of small quantities of cannabis. The week before, Mexico passed a law that decriminalized possession of small quantities of most drugs, including marijuana, heroin, cocaine and LSD. Then, earlier in the year, a Brazilian appeals court ruled that possession of drugs for personal use is not illegal. Mind you, they are way behind Portugal which decriminalized all personal drug possession back in 2000.
Time to move?
--> Progressive Pollution dept: The EPA in 2006 named BP (British Petroleum) as the worst polluter in the U.S. Guess who advertises in the liberal NATION magazine... with a green flower as their logo.
-->Spy vs. Spy dept: Jim Hightower reports that Starbucks' newest competitor is... well... Starbucks. According to Hightower, the awful coffee giant is finally getting the message that people don't want to drink coffee produced by an awful coffee giant. According to Hightower, Starbucks will open new shops, keeping their name off the marquee.
Hightower reports, “The new shops strive to be the anti-Starbucks, with funky stylings and localized names that disguise the corporate presence behind them.”
So, before you buy from that new coffee shop down the street. Ask 'em who signs their paychecks.
Mykel's homepage is here.