Decent People

Garth Greenwell

Fall 2019

But it isn’t serious, he said, waving his hand at the snarl of traffic on the boulevard leading into the center, of course not, if it were serious we would be part of it, nie shofyorite, taxi drivers he meant, we would blockade the streets like we did during the Changes, everyone would be on strike. You could be proud in those days, he said, meaning 1989, when Communism fell, we were proud, we were organized. I was young then, it was a wonderful time. I could have left, he said, I could have gone anywhere, Europe, America, but I didn’t want to go anywhere, I wanted to stay here. We thought it was the most exciting place to be, we thought we would make something out of our country, we had so much hope, do you understand, we felt so much hope because finally we were free. Free, he said, then sucked hard on his cigarette, turning to the window to blow the smoke away from me, we thought we would make something new but we didn’t. It was the same assholes, he said—the word he used was neshtastnitsi, the literal meaning is something like unhappy or unlucky, the unfortunate ones—it was the same assholes who took over. It was still hot though it was the end of the afternoon, people were heading home from work, heading home or to the center, as we were, where already protesters were gathering as they had all week, in the hundreds and thousands. I had been watching them on the news but wanted to be among them in person, it felt like something remarkable was happening or about to happen in this country where so little happens, really, which is usually so quiescent. I wanted to see it for myself though it had nothing to do with me, of course, it wasn’t my country, would never be my country, I was leaving at the end of the term. But it had been my home, as close to home as anywhere else, and I wanted the demonstrations to be more than a momentary spasm, I felt the hope that some of my students felt, my colleagues, I wanted it to be real. What does it matter which party takes over, he went on, vse edno, they’re all the same, they’re all thieves, look what they’ve done to my country. The traffic moved a little finally, he gripped the steering wheel again, the cigarette burned almost to the filter between the first and second fingers of his left hand. I could have gone away but I didn’t, he said, prostak, idiot, I’ve fucked my life. He was still a young man, I thought, or at least he wasn’t old, maybe a few years older than I was, too young to talk the way he was talking. Too young by American time, I mean, different times pertain in different places. He was dressed like a young man, too, in jeans and a worn T-shirt, his face rough with two or three days’ stubble and glistening just slightly with sweat, as mine was, even with the windows open it was hot in the car. He glanced at me every now and again, his eyes not holding mine. Vizh, he said then, look, I understand them, it’s impossible to live a normal life in Bulgaria, I mean if you want to follow the laws, pay your taxes, you can’t survive here and be honest, only criminals survive. I don’t mean you don’t go to expensive restaurants or bars, you don’t have a good time, I mean you can’t put food on the table, you can’t have a normal life. I want to live like that, do you understand, I want to live in a normal country. We had gotten past the Pliska Hotel finally, where all the buses stop, the traffic was heavy still but moving. So I understand the protesters, there need to be protests, this government needs to disappear—but there’s nowhere to turn, the politicians, vsichki sa pedali, he said, they’re all faggots. He hadn’t asked me anything during the ride, none of the usual questions about who I was or where I was from, he couldn’t be sure how much of what he said I understood. But it didn’t matter, he was talking for his own benefit, I thought, for his own relief. We slowed again to a stop and he gave a low whistle as he looked at the traffic, which was completely jammed ahead near Levski Stadium, where the boulevard we were on crossed another by the little river that ran through Sofia, cordoned off in a concrete canal. It was called Perlovska, the pearly river, which made me laugh, since it was a drainage ditch, really, almost an open sewer; it was only called Perlovska on maps, nobody used the name in real life.

My girlfriend, the driver said, she yells at me all the time, she says I work too hard, she wants me to spend more time with her, you know, she doesn’t understand. She’s from the mountains, her parents still live in the village, she likes to go there on the weekends, she wants me to go too. But tell me, he said, how do I have the time to go, I work twelve, fifteen hours a day, every day, you understand, I never take a day off. I love the mountains, he said, as if defending himself, running his fingers through his hair, which was cut close to the skull, I would love to go to the mountains, to get out of Sofia, in the mountains it’s clean, the air is good, you can breathe there, it’s not like here. Sofia used to be clean, he said, when I was a kid, I hated the Communists but you have to be honest, they kept things clean, it wasn’t like it is now. And people took care of each other then, he said, we were all fucked but we had solidarity. Now people just say fuck off—maika ti, he said, which means your mother, it’s a kind of contraction, when people are really angry they say maika ti da eba, I fuck your mother—nobody cares about the others, everybody steals whatever they can. Do people take care of each other in America, he said then, the first question he had asked me though he didn’t want an answer, he went on right away, I know they do, he said, I’ve never been to America but I have the idea that you care for each other there. We were still stopped in traffic, he shifted anxiously in his seat. That’s good about the protests, maybe, he said, they show that people believe in solidarity, the young people, we’ve forgotten but to them it’s still important. Mozhe bi, he said again, maybe, I don’t know. He took his pack of cigarettes from a cupholder in the center console and knocked one into his palm. Well, he said, lighting it, buddy, priyatelyu, this traffic isn’t going to move anytime soon. He suggested I get out and walk, that way he could take the next exit and head back to Mladost. We settled up then, I grabbed my backpack from between my legs and hooked my fingers through the latch of the door. Blagodarya, I said, hesitating a moment before leaving the little intimacy his speech had made, and he held out his hand. Uspeh, he said as I took it, good luck, and then he released it to fiddle with the radio, dismissing me with a blast of American rock.

It was a bit of a walk to the gathering point, which was in front of the Archaeological Museum, on a stretch that featured the city’s most impressive architecture, its public face: the huge cathedral, with its domes and bells, and state buildings, the university and National Assembly, august and classical. It was an architecture of aspiration, a new nation declaring its ideals. Much of the protesters’ anger had converged here, at the Assembly especially, where there had been a dramatic moment in an earlier wave of protests, a couple of months before. It had been late, almost midnight, and the representatives were huddling inside, waiting for the protesters to leave, as they always did, once they had spent their anger in shouting. But something happened that evening, there was a shift, the anger didn’t disperse but grew ominous, dense and pressured. With every representative that left the protesters had grown angrier, their insults more virulent, their chants more raucous, to the point that the politicians who remained were too frightened to leave, the police had to intervene, they brought in a bus to evacuate them. But the crowd wouldn’t let them leave, they pressed themselves against the bus, began rocking it back and forth, and then there were balaclavaed men with bottles and metal pipes, and in a clip repeated again and again on the news one of them leapt up and struck one of the windows, shattering it. This escalation seemed to give the crowd pause, it was as if there were an indrawn breath, a hesitation that might have been the prelude to real violence except that it gave the line of police reinforcements a chance to break through, using their shields to push the protesters back, opening a path for the bus to escape.

Probably it had something to do with the weather, the fact that the most recent protests had remained peaceful; Sofia is wonderful in springtime, and even with the unseasonable heat it was a glorious spring. At Orlov Most the little vendor stalls were heaped with flowers and with cherries, swollen and voluptuously red; old women brought them from their villages, they were the most delicious cherries I had ever tasted. I bought some now from a round squat woman who called out sladki, sladki, promising they were sweet. She put great handfuls in a plastic sack, a bread bag turned inside out—I saw she had a whole heap of these sacks next to her in a garbage bag, she must have been collecting them all winter. The bag she handed me was half full, more than I wanted, she had filled it before I could tell her to stop. She was wearing a thin, formless house dress with a floral pattern, almost a nightgown, the kind of thing my own grandmother wore, and her hair was the same, too, cut short and curled; probably the resemblance was why I stopped, though her hair wasn’t my grandmother’s gray but dyed a bright shade of red I had only ever seen in the Balkans. She weighed the cherries on an old balance scale, as she did so trying to sell me her flowers, that was all she had on her table, cherries and country flowers, daisies and black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne’s lace, laid out in piles and also in prebundled bouquets, one of which she held out to me. For your girlfriend, she said, go on, she will be so happy. I laughed, thanking her but not taking the flowers, and she shrugged, disappointed. But she smiled again when I handed her a bill for five leva, telling her to keep the change, and she insisted I take a single black-eyed Susan, which I did, I would feel awkward carrying it through the streets but it would have been rude to refuse. I thanked her and slipped into the stream of people walking along the boulevard. Nearly everyone was headed for the protests, they carried signs and noisemakers, one man swung a bullhorn at his waist. They were young people mostly, some of them with shaved heads or dyed hair, the various strands of Sofia’s alternative scene, a kind of neo-hippie style of torn jeans and denim jackets; but really there were people of all kinds, men and women coming from the office, couples pushing bikes or strollers, one young man with his daughter on his shoulders, her ringlets of brown hair crowned with a chain of flowers. People were laughing, the mood wasn’t angry at all, it was ebullient, and I slipped the stem of the black-eyed Susan through the buttons of my shirt, so that the bright head hung at my heart. That put me in mind of something, a flower for a heart, there was a line of a poem I almost remembered, something from O’Hara or Reverdy; I couldn’t quite catch it but the feel of it made me smile. Police were in the street directing traffic, ushering the last cars through before they closed the boulevard for the march, but for now we stayed on the sidewalk, moving more slowly as it grew more crowded, which just increased our fellow feeling: people smiled to each other in a way that was unusual in Sofia, couples drew closer together, parents pulled their children near, keeping a hand on the top of their heads, on the nape of their necks. Bulgarian flags were everywhere, dangling from breast pockets or the straps of backpacks, one woman had four or five of them tucked into the long braid of her hair. Children waved them in the air, and some adults did, too, though we hadn’t made it to the protest yet. Or maybe we had, we were the protest already, I guess, we had become a kind of parade. The cherries burst in my mouth, firm and ripe, sweet with a dark sweetness, gorgeous, like a low frequency. I spat the pits in my palm and dropped them a little guiltily into the gutter.

My phone buzzed with a text from D., telling me to meet him at the fountain in front of the Presidency. He was one of the first friends I had made in Bulgaria, a journalist and a poet, an alumnus of the school where I taught. We had met at some function where he was held up as an example, since after college and graduate school in the States he had decided to come back, as almost none of our students ever did; if you came back it meant you had failed, our students thought, but D. hadn’t failed, it was an important example. The boulevard was blocked off after the intersection with Rakovski and we spilled out into the street, which was already full of people, as was the square in front of the Presidency. This had yellow police barricades in front of it but was otherwise protected only by the usual ornamental guard, two men in nineteenth-century uniforms staring blankly and unfazed, bayonets held stiffly at their sides. The police were gathered across the boulevard, in front of the former Communist Party headquarters, which served as Parliament offices now and where there was a much larger space kept free from protesters, the distance a bottle could be thrown, I thought—but they were relaxed, most of them held their helmets under their arms. Their riot shields were stacked in piles leaning against the bus they had traveled in on, the size of an American school bus, painted blue and white. They were smiling and talking with one another, with the protesters, toward whom they had expressed a benevolent neutrality, claiming in public statements that they were keeping the protests safe, that so long as they remained peaceful they had no intention of putting a stop to them; and the protesters reciprocated, one man stood now in front of them with a sign that read we thank our friends the police. The hope was that by saying it one could make it so, I thought, and so far the hope had held. Interspersed among the crowd were large white vans, teams of newscasters; cameramen stood on their roofs, next to the satellite dishes, scanning the crowd. People were milling about, many of them holding their signs above their heads to block the sun; it could have been a fair, almost, the crowd was bright with balloons, with spinning pinwheels children waved, with the sounds of whistles and handheld drums. Near the fountain, in the shade of a tree, a man had set out a table with these trinkets, most of all with the little Bulgarian flags that he held out to passersby, calling out po levche sa, one lev each. There were other street vendors, too; the air was sweet with roasted walnuts, and people were carrying little plastic bags of sunflower seeds, bottles of water still sweating with condensation.

I couldn’t see D. at first, the area around the fountain was packed with people. Children ran around the fountain’s edge, weaving past their parents, bumping into strangers, and playing in the water, too, though there were signs forbidding it; they shrieked, arms pressed tight to their sides, as the spray soaked their clothes. But then I noticed him, he had hoisted himself onto the base of a lamppost and was scanning the crowd. I waved, and his face brightened when he saw me. He was a few years younger than I, with shaggy black hair that hung into his eyes if he let it go too long between haircuts, as he had now. He wasn’t obviously beautiful but he was beautiful, it was a combination of charm and intelligence, a kind of earthy old-world grace, and of the wiry athleticism I felt when we hugged, a little awkwardly to spare the flower. You’ve been working out, I said when he pulled back, and he smiled, raising both his arms in a muscleman pose. It had taken me a while to be sure he was straight, he was so warm with his friends, he spoke a language of endearment, of casual caresses and kisses to the cheek and forehead, flirtation was his natural mode of congress with the world. This annoyed me sometimes in others, it could seem like a taunt, or a demand to be adored; but D.’s affection was genuine, a kind of blessing, it made you happy to be with him. He led me to the patch of shade he had claimed under the trees that grew near the wall of the Archaeological Museum, where he had been standing with two other people. One of these was his mother, whom I knew well, and I took the flower from my shirt and held it out to her, which made her laugh, she took it and then pulled me to her for a hug. I’m sure my face showed my surprise when D. introduced me to the older man standing with them; I had read his books, in Bulgarian and in English, he was the first writer I read when I decided years before to come to Sofia. Za men e chest, I said to him, shaking his hand, it’s an honor, and he smiled, less at the sentiment, I thought, than at the formality of what I had said, which was so out of tune with the festive atmosphere, with his friendship with D., which was old and deep, with the shorts and sneakers he was wearing, I was suddenly a little embarrassed. Cherries, I said in English, I had almost forgotten their weight in my hand, and I held the bag out to him. He laughed, and as he reached his hand in the awkwardness was gone. D. took each of us by a shoulder, beaming, and said how happy he was for us to meet. I offered the cherries to him, too, telling him to take the bag, I had had enough. You brought us gifts, D. said, flowers and cherries, you brought us springtime, he said, which made everyone laugh.

Garth Greenwell is the author of What Belongs to You. A new book of fiction, Cleanness, will be published by FSG in January.

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