Swans Commentary » swans.com June 18, 2012  





by Peter Byrne


Short Story



(Swans - June 18, 2012)   Roberto with his expectant, misty-eyes above round cheeks had come in the apartment door. He was the baby in the Madonna's arms, now with a mustache à la turque and a persistent halo that spoke of an Italian mother. He came down the hall and sat on the sofa.

Stan, who lived there, was twenty-five years his senior. He stayed on his feet, glass in hand, moving around the high room, talking. He didn't notice when the earth fluttered.

"Look," said Roberto, pointing.

A scrawny chandelier, much beloved of the landlord, swung back and forth, maybe two inches out of line.

Jean entered the room. Lea, Stan's wife, had let him in and then went into the bathroom to wash her hair. Shaking her head under the shower she missed the tremor.

But Jean, a Frenchman, always over briefed, had not been taken aback. "A strong one, stronger than yesterday's 5.7 and just as far away from Istanbul."

He was Monsieur Glum. His modish haircut left only fuzz, and the two-day facial stubble that went with it suggested a death's head.

Roberto turned on the TV but didn't wait to watch. He walked down the hall punching at his mobile phone.

Stan shrugged and pouted theatrically. "He's phoning his piece to see if her ass has cracked."

Jean told himself he had to be careful with these Americans. The proper word was arse. He taught French but found with dismay that he often had to use English in explanations to his Turkish students.

"She's his mistress," he hit back.

"I know, I know," said Stan. "But these popsies are tougher than we think, and she's here in Istanbul, safe like us."

Stan got annoyed watching the young repeat all his own mistakes.

The man on TV was talking fast about the earthquake. They puzzled out the Turkish.

Jean's face lit up with the crossbones of satisfaction. It was good to be right. "It struck to the east of that aftershock of yesterday. But this was a real quake, like August 17th. He says 7.2 Richter scale."

Roberto stuck his head in from the hall and asked if he could call Milan on the apartment phone. His mobile was acting up. On Stan's sour nod, he disappeared again.

"Has he got more pussy in Italy?" asked Stan.

"He has mother," said Jean neutrally.

"They have a quake there?"

"Italian-type mother. She nags, that is to say, is concerned for his well-being."

"And he's worried about his popsie's."

The TV showed shots from the stricken area. A woman in a kerchief and long gray coat collapsed in the arms of three men. Eight eyes looked with curiosity into the camera.

Jean was stern. "You have said popsie. That's British. With popsie you should say arse."

"Jesus Christ, Jean, open the lycée window. I speak English, the world's my oyster."

"Heh! Watch out for foreign oysters. Get them from Brittany and the West. You say Aquitaine."

On the screen a half-dozen men ran down an empty street. They might have been thwarted bank robbers.

Stan, now seated, asked, "Is there any danger out there in the suburbs where his girlfriend lives?"

"Cracks in the wall after August 17th. The family won't move out."


"They are Armenians."

"So they'd move if they were Turks?"

"No. Turks are like Armenians, only different."

"Don't yield the terrain?"

"Yes. The neighbors might take over. Or vice versa."

The TV ambulances, camera-conscious, maneuvered more carefully than in unphotographed traffic.

Jean had been phrase making. "You could say that seismic shifts shake up the property sense. It's weakened."

"Because it's strengthened," said Stan who distrusted French aphorisms. "But if Roberto thinks his ladylove's so fragile, why doesn't he take her under his wing and roof in our dear old Beyoglu?"

Jean word-pondered. "Her people are Armenian..."

"So you said. Those folks don't screw?" Stan had shot down the periodic sentence Jean had in view.

"...And his are Italian."

"Well," said Stan, "I know they screw."

"Weekends," said Jean, "not full-time."

"Well, none of us is getting any younger," said Stan.

Jean had been so pleased with his own wording that he paused too long. "Till they get married," he went on, and then messed things up properly. "Not in public, till the nuptials, you know," he fell flat, "the matrimonials."

On TV a kid mugged in front of the camera. His mother threw her arms up in the air. Then she held him tight against her breast. He got the message and changed his grin to a look of desolation.

"She attend his Italian classes?" asked Stan.

"Yes. He makes her sit in the back row and he will not let her ask questions."

"She a dummy?"

"No, but she makes him blush and he gets sweaty. He's a sweater, don't you know?"

"Suburban hots," said Stan, "c'est une grande passion!"

The excited man was back on TV saying what he'd said before. Then the previously seen series of shots began again. You could see that the collapsing woman was not yet thirty. She fell because her legs folded under the weight of her kerchief and gray coat.

Stan got up and turned off the TV before the bank robbers or posse got to the end of the empty street.

Jean sat back and pronounced, "He says 121 dead. Tomorrow there will be 222 and next day 300 something."

"I noted that. But they won't get away with 323, will they?"

Jean gave an untranslatable frown of doubt.

Roberto came back, cramming his mobile in his pocket.

"All well on the home front?" asked Stan.

"My mother..." said Roberto.

"Ill?" said Stan.

"She worries," said Roberto, his eyes sad.

"And your Armenian friends?"

"I worry about those cracks in their wall."

"Family fissures are hard to avoid," said Stan.

But Roberto wasn't listening or rather only heard his mobile buzz in his pocket. He tore it out and rushed back into the hall.

Stan sat and thought how he disliked phones, fixed or mobile, and other people talking into them. He dreaded Jean's next sentence, so long in preparation. All the English Stan taught in thirty years was thrown back at him wrong side around. It made him feel criminal, a corrupter of youth.

Roberto was back with his mouth open, mobile dangling.

"What happened?" asked Stan. He could hear Lea singing in the bathroom in foreign English.

"Alma," he said.

Jean stared.

"Hurt?" asked Stan.

"Her uncle," said Roberto, "he's dead. You met him," he added, looking at Jean and brightening up. "The fat man with the carpet shop."

My Allah, the pain, thought Stan, wondering what a trendy Frenchman wore to Armenian funerals.

"With the 1957 Cadillac?" Jean brightened too.

"Yes, he had a fight with a friend over a parking space, una mischia! The person hit him dead."

"With a carpet?" asked Stan.

"With his Mercedes 1979."

"Phew," said Jean who loved vintage cars.

"This neighbor rammed him. He had a shop too. Both cars were full of carpets."

Roberto looked at the gray TV screen and turned it on. The grinning kid was being swept up by his hysterical mother.

"Earthquakes are a hell of a thing," said Stan. Though it didn't sound that way, he meant it.

Jean squeezed the end of his chin with a thumb and two fingers.

The song from the bathroom was blotted out by the sound of a hairdryer.

Roberto watched the kid's face wrinkle up with tears.

"Poor boy," he said.

Lea came in with a towel on her head.

"What's wrong?" she said.

"With whom?" asked Jean.

"Nothing serious," said Stan. "Whom's just been roughed up a bit by who. He'll get over it."

"The boy's been scared by the quake," said Roberto, pointing to the screen.

The repeating clip got around to the men running.

"And them?" asked Lea rubbing the towel hard in the top of her skull.

"They are helpers," said Jean, "and are hurrying to help."

"Nonsense," said Stan. "They're looters moving in for the kill."

"Looters never appear on TV," said Roberto.

"Why not?" asked Lea.

"They only work after dark," said Jean. "In daylight it would be bad example."

The men had gone. Stan pushed the power button to darken the screen and stop the ambulances and the child's tears from coming around again.

Roberto stepped back and said, "I think they were the men of the family rushing back to see what happened to their homes."

"I see," said Stan, "they were at the tea house."

"Smoking and playing cards for hours," said Lea.

"They play backgammon," said Jean.

Roberto had trouble with that. "Why wouldn't the tea house have been as bad off as their home?"

"It was destroyed too, but it wasn't theirs," said Stan.

"I see," said Roberto "and they were worried about their wives and children."

Finished with the towel, Lea said knowingly, "They felt guilty about being away so long."

"You think?" asked Jean.

"Don't forget," said Stan, "their livestock was around the back of their house."

"Chickens just rise above the trembling earth. It's fact. Like helicopters," said Jean.

"Think of the misery," said Roberto.

"I'd rather not," said Stan.

"7.2 Richter scale," said Jean.

"Something ought to be done about that," said Lea.

"The government will send the army," said Jean.

"Yes," said Lea, "but..."

"You mean to help the children?" asked Roberto.

"She means to punish somebody," said Stan. "Those backgammon players, for a start."


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published June 18, 2012