About a year ago, I wrote a long story - as opposed to a short story. It reflected various thoughts and impressions - material that was not appropriate for the formal reports I wrote during that time. It is copyright protected material - and it is all my own. There are definitely resemblances between the characters in the story & people who are living. In fact, sometimes I would describe a character - and then meet that actual person not long after. Very strange. And there are resemblances between real places and the fictional places in the story. But I did not want to sacrifice a larger truth for the sake of trying to make every detail strictly accurate. Hence - names of places and people have been changed. I hope in some ways the story is amusing or illustrative or at the very least interesting.
Here is Chapter One. Chapter Two will follow - in about a week.
Emin Husadzev took a moment from his job to enjoy the sunrise. He was perched on a 20-foot ladder, pasting a large poster of the president’s father onto a billboard that towered above the central square of Berme, a small provincial city of Azanistan.
On June 21, the sun was rising early, and an orange light suffused the square, reflected from the pavement still wet from last night’s rain. At this hour, few people were driving, and the only sound was the scrape of straw brooms on the sidewalks. Three women wearing saffron-colored smocks and bright headscarves swept the pavement clean. This was the ideal time for Emin’s work, with enough light to let him apply the posters neatly, but before the streets were busy. Ideally, people should have the impression that the images on the billboards naturally stayed fresh and new, that they were somehow self-replicating, not dependent on human hands. This morning, even the poster of Heymar Alidev seemed to glow in the light of the orange dawn, adding life to an image that had grown flat from repetition. All the residents of Azanistan long ago had become inured to his visage, because posters of him and of his son decorated every public space in the country. But Emin took a professional pride in his work, and while he knew the posters were not art, he tried to apply them with professional care. He was certainly not ignorant of the repetitious nature of posters, plastered on walls, posted by highways, hung in schools and offices. Emin had held this job for the last year, so he knew every small feature of the father and son – the squinting eyes and thick eyebrows of the father, the indolent gaze and slight smile of the son.
The poster of Heymar Alidev now smiled into the sunrise, and Emin smiled too, admiring his work. He had applied the poster smoothly, with no wrinkles marring the surface. The presentation of the posters be especially important now, because birthday celebrations for the president, who died five years earlier, were planned for the next week.
“Hello, Heymar,” Emin addressed the dead president. “You are looking fine this morning.” All that remained was to paste the inspirational quote from the Heymar Alidev at the bottom of the poster, and this billboard would be complete.
“The Azani people draw strength from unity!”
Emin unraveled these words and applied them at the bottom of the poster, climbed down the ladder, gathered his tools and walked down the still empty streets to the main square for some tea.
Few people were drinking tea in the Pines Café at this hour. Other than tea, the café served small soda cakes, but they were usually stale. The regulars just drank tea. Emin took a table by the window, and in a few moments Pavel, one of the waiters, came over with a small pot of tea and a cup. He put them on the table in front of Emin, and then sat down opposite him.
“Has she come back yet?” he asked.
The question was direct and uncomfortable, but the two men were friends, and Emin knew that Pavel’s intent was always good, even though his style was usually rough.
Pavel, one of Emin’s few friends, was one of the handful of Russians who remained in this city after the country declared its independence from the Soviet Union, A former newspaper editor, Pavel now waited on tables because his newspaper had been closed by the government, and no other newspaper would hire him now. He was a good editor, but a terrible waiter, always forgetting orders and spending too much time chatting with customers. But Gunar, the owner of the café, kept him employed, because long ago he had a schoolboy’s crush on Pavel’s mother.
“She didn’t call?” Pavel asked.
“She’s not at Zamine’s?”
“No, I’m pretty sure about that.”
“What are you going to do?”
Emin took his cup of tea, blew on it softly, and watched a taxi impatiently race by a soot-spewing city bus.
“I don’t know.”
Emin’s wife, Buna, had disappeared, again, two weeks ago. Buna hadn’t disappeared for at least six months, and in any case it was unusual for her to stay away for two weeks. When Emin married Buna 10 years earlier, she had been strikingly beautiful, with piercing dark eyes, and the body of gymnast. Her years of drinking had since taken their toll. Her eyes were now not so bright, and her forehead bore the scars of her falls. But she still had a certain magnetism, so once she started drinking, Buna would start to act as if she were again the young courtesan, charming her male admirers. Of course, she was no young courtesan, and her male admirers were more likely to be rough middle-aged truck drivers than charming young men. And, once she started drinking, she completely lost control, finding herself in dangerous and compromising positions. Once, she had awoken from a blackout and found herself in a small hotel in Russia. That had been six months ago, and Emin had nearly divorced her at that point.
After that experience, Buna had agreed to stop drinking for awhile, and even went to a new church in Berme, where the kind members of the congregation prayed for her soul. Emin began to hope that they could begin to love again, and in fact they had sex not long before she disappeared. But one day, he came home from his job, and he knew right away, she had gone. There was no note, no physical sign. She could have been at her job in the laundry, but he knew the truth. She had gone.
Emin tried not to worry about her, but of course he did. When the church members had learned that she was gone again, they told Emin they would pray for her, and Emin prayed for her too, but it felt mechanical and empty. And when he prayed for her, he found himself imagining her in the arms of some strange man, and he felt dirty. It was less painful just to not think of her.
Pavel and Emin sat in silence, looking at the city square as the streets began to fill with morning traffic. A small gang of beggar children was bothering the people who wanted to use the nearby money exchange booths. Women were already carrying large bags loaded with fruits and vegetables back from the bazaar, located a few blocks south of the café. They were old friends, and could sit indefinitely in silence together. Their contemplation was interrupted, however, as Gunar entered the café, slamming the door. He sat down noisily beside Emin. Pavel hurriedly got up, avoiding Gunar’s angry eyes, and bustled back to the kitchen.
Gunar had pulled strings to get Emin his job, and ever since then considered that Emin was indebted to him. Gunar was, in fact, annoyed that Emin seemed to have forgotten his debt to the café owner. Emin, who was trained as a painter, had been unemployed for more than year, depending on his wife’s meager salary as a seamstress when Gunar’s friends in the New Freedom Party told them that they needed someone to put up posters of the president and his father. Every town and city already had posters that graced every public space, but these posters naturally needed to be replaced periodically. It would be disrespectful to depict the Presidents Alidev with tattered or dirty posters. Furthermore, the party leaders were certain that further opportunities for publicizing the President and his father existed. They would always exist. New places could always be found for new billboards. So Emin was hired as part of a small regional team that was assigned the task of replacing the old or decaying posters and finding places for new posters. He was given the title of “national artist,” although very little art was required in the application of adhesive to flat surfaces.
“I saw the new one this morning,” Gunar said. “Very nice. Very nice. You are a true artist.”
“Thank you. Yes, I like it too. It’s bright and cheery. The flag in the background is inspiring. And the quote too. I’m putting up another one up in March 20 Square, later this morning.”
“Good, good. I like your work. You should be proud of yourself, turning your life around. Doing something useful.”
“Thank you,” Emin said. “And thank you for helping me.”
“I am happy to help. Our nation needs everyone. It needs everyone united, working together,” he said.
Emin turned to look at Gunar’s fat and satisfied face, but he could think of no reply. When he was working, Emin was able to separate himself from the goal of his job – the indoctrination of the population. But here in the presence of Gunar, that objective was all too palpable. Everything about Gunar - his meticulous thin moustache, his sour cabbage odor, and thick rings on his fat fingers – disgusted Emin.
“Yes, speaking of work, my next task awaits me,” Emin said. “I want to finish the installation at March 20 Square before noon.”
“Of course. Of course,” said Gunar. “By all means.”
The heavy man rose to his feet, and turned to the kitchen, where Pavel was chatting with the cook.
“Pavel, you worthless socialist! There is a dirty table here! Come here!” Gunar shouted.
Pavel was cleaning that table when Emin left the café, but he looked up to smile and wave goodbye.