I was sitting outside the main Zagreb hospital after a night of watching over three people: my driver and two French nurses. They were traveling from Sarajevo to the border when their vehicle hydroplaned and went over an embankment. They fell far enough to be badly smashed. My idiot assistant was in the backseat sleeping. She wanted my job, but wasn’t going to get it. I’d made sure of that. The glow of the dawn was seeping into the parking lot and I got a radio message that the French Ambassador was coming to the hospital at 9:00. I had four hours to kill.
I leaned my head back against the top of the seat and closed my eyes. I never had time to think, to plan. Everything was always a reaction. A few hours to clear my mind might help. I didn’t want to be in Zagreb and I didn’t want to listen to what the Ambassador had to say.
Hardly any light came under the closed door. Yet, it reminded me of butter spreading from the hall into the janitor’s closet. The smell of her cigarette breath mixed with my sweat and I knew my seamen would somehow end up in a cleaning bucket, one way or the other.
I used to meet an old man for lunch just about every day. His first name was Tom, but we called him The Bullet. If you placed a small magnet on the side of his head, it would stick because of the lead fragments in his brain. He also claimed that he could receive radio signals, but nobody believed that, even when he would announce the news. Maybe it was true. I first learned about the death of John Lennon from The Bullet and he was also good at predicting the location of food riots. I’d sometimes change my route home based upon his advice.
We’d come out of our offices on the upper deck of the square and sit upon the benches near the monument to Diesel Flashlight Blanket, the last man standing in the “War of Liberation” against the Portuguese. Post-colonial history books always failed to mention that the rebellion was a disaster mostly due to the incompetence and infighting of the rebels. Flashlight was the last insurgent leader captured. He was finally cornered in the Tierra Caliente on the Mandrake coast. The government took Flashlight alive and after a public show trail, he was drawn and quartered with ceremonial swords from Lisbon. Each bloody chunk was taken to the farthest reaches of the country in four different directions. The larger part of his head stayed attached to his right shoulder and arm. This was the prized piece and so the soldiers hanged it in the far south for the mountain Condors to strip. The Portuguese ruled for the next two hundred years with few problems as long as one didn’t count the number of people they killed to stay in power.
Eventually the victorious Portuguese put up iron poles with large, waving iron flags. At the base of each pole was a plaque that read, “If You Think You Are Smarter Than Us, You Are Mistaken.” The tallest pole was constructed on the main square of the capital, but that was a long time ago. Now the monument to Flashlight covered the same spot where the flag pole used to signal in its frightening stillness. It was as if the magic of metal flag engineering never existed. If nothing else, Flashlight’s monument proved that the Portuguese had, at some point, become stupider than the people they ruled.
On days when it wasn’t snowing and after our sandwiches, The Bullet and I would play chess. He usually beat me. On that particular day I said, “So I lose again, damn you old timer, but I have an excuse. I was just in the utility closet trying to satisfy Pilar. I’m exhausted and this cheese sandwich did nothing for my strength.” He laughed and said, “You are bad at chess, but lucky with this woman, this Marie del Pilar. She is beautiful beneath her cleaning fluid and rags. Any fool can see if they look.” Pilar was a janitor in our building and didn’t have much education, but she possessed a keen sense of humanity and her skin was worn down by a variety of chemicals that had turned her into a smooth female vase; alabaster, translucent, and fragile.
“Watch yourself,” The Bullet said, “pleasure is always fleeting. They say he is a monster and if he finds out, you’ll not be so lucky.” Her husband was the night watchman for the building and he carried a gun. One of the stories told about him was how he poured acid over the head of a man who had insulted him concerning a coconut ice cream. The details were lost, but the man didn’t survive. When she and I would have sex among the barrels and mops, I’d think to myself that her husband probably liked ice cream better than his wife. That was my hope anyway and it usually allowed me to finish my duty to Pilar. She once told me she and her husband rarely had sex. He only liked to sleep between her legs to keep warm as if she were a dog and they were trapped inside an ice locked ship in the Antarctic.
I was blinded by many things and I really understood nothing of Pilar and her husband. Who knew the truth of their relationship? Maybe even they didn’t know. It works that way sometimes. People who don’t know themselves can’t be expected to know others. Yet we try to, but normally make a mess of things in the process. Oh yes, they are a happy family, until they are not and then the pain and suffering begins to everyone’s surprise.
“You and Pilar are doomed,” The Bullet said. He was always on me about Pilar. “Why do you care?” I asked. He looked into the distance as if he were watching someone on fire. He shook his head and said, “You only seek to isolate yourself. There is nothing for you with this woman, only trouble. You need to find a nice girl. Someone you can take to meet your mother.” He cast his hands around, “Just look at all these beauties.” He was right. The square was full of young women from the government buildings. Most of them were good looking, but the truth was I didn’t care. I’d rather pay for sex or have someone like Pilar who would never bother me for commitment.
“Look Bullet, we have talked about this before. I am not a religious man. Family means little to me. My reason for living comes in my private moments that I share with people like you and Pilar. I am not a public speaker. I hate politics. I am introverted and supremely alone, even in a crowd. I dislike most people and nothing matters to me except the moment. I have no plans and no real aspirations beyond reading books, writing, traveling, and staying between the ditches. Is that so bad?”
The Bullet looked into my eyes, “No my son, it is commendable and I have misspoken. You are in many ways a holy man, similar to Jesus, although you don’t know it. I see you as an ex-pantheist who has left a multitude of churches only to find yourself in the center of a sacred light that is powered by your own farting.” He had me cold. I was in his crosshairs. I almost felt like he was going to agree with me, which he never did, and then, as expected, he crushed me with the thought that I made decision based upon how many times I farted each day. I loved The Bullet and I continually told him so.
“I love you Bullet.”
Someone was rapping at the window of my SUV. He was a Zagreb cop. When I looked at him, I heard the words coming through the glass about how the French Ambassador was inside talking to the doctors. He was early and the dawn was still turning up the light. Gauzy images of Flashlight, The Bullet, Pilar, her fat husband with the holster at his hip, and the way I used to be, quickly disappeared from my mind. I woke up my assistant and we went inside to face the wrath of a man who did not like me for reasons beyond the accident. They extended all the way back to Sarajevo and the tunnel beneath the airport and a bunch of dead French soldiers.
Life was little more than a large picture puzzle scattered upon the floor with six or seven key pieces missing and most of the others sticky with breakfast syrup or some such liquid. Nobody knew anything.
Fucking French…I was half-French and I never liked Zagreb.