Saturday, February 25, 2017

this piece is accepted for publication in Sick Lit Mag

“Cut it all off,” I say.
"Yes,” he nods, as he lays the drape over me. He hums and tightens the snap collar around my neck.
“My hair doesn’t grow out well,” I say, hearing my voice that sounds small inside the overly bright place. I keep talking, just to talk, as I settle into the chair, words just tumble out: “it doesn’t lay flat or flop, or hang in my forehead, it doesn’t sweep, it just grows up and out, I have cowlicks all over.”
"Yes," he says. Without further ado, the clipper buzzes pleasantly, it vibrates through my skin, into my skull. The physicality of body sensation grounds me. I’m sitting in the chair, my feet just touch the metal rest, I tap a toe softly to test the hardness, the realness of it, my hands grasp the armrests. I breathe.

Soon, the scissors are snipping. His gentle hands smell clean and pepperminty, they move briskly, efficiently around my head. I watch the silver accumulate on the scarred linoleum, a snowfall of hair.

“How are you today?” he asks. His English is as good as my Arabic. His words are spiced with hard consonants and resonant vowels. Over the years of our acquaintance, we’ve developed a comfortable repertoire. Sometimes I catch his soft brown eyes, but he is shy and looks away. He has that swarthy skin, the look from the Fertile Crescent, the thick dark hair and Mesopotamian brow of his people.  He is beautiful.
“I’m ok,” I say, “how are you doing?”
“Ok, I’m ok too.”
For the moment, we’ve exhausted our usual topics of conversation, so I look at the rain streaking down the plate glass window. It’s a wet, windy November day. It feels like the day when the last tree has shed its last leaf, when all seems naked and cold. It is that lonely late afternoon hour, yawning and blank and vast, when time feels heavy, when I need to find those little things to do, errands to check off my list: buy lightbulbs, mail that check, pick up some shirts at the dry cleaners, get a haircut. These small islands of activity make the day seem a little less empty. Already, the darkness is creeping in.
 “Night comes so quickly these days,” I say out loud.
“Yes,” he says.
“It’s hard to believe we’ll be in a new millennium, in just a few weeks.”
“A whole new time,” he nods.
His thumb lingers on my cervical vertebra as he deftly, gently strokes a quick razor over my nape. My skin tingles in the cool air of the place. This slight touch surprises me, I cannot remember the last time I was touched, my flesh craves and cowers, but then the moment is gone. Again, briefly, I catch his eye in the mirror. He looks away.

Two other guys await their turn, one riffs through a men’s magazine, the other sways to music on his Walkman. NPR drones, crackling on the old sound system, a story about a breakthrough in AIDs medications, a new cocktail, a story that breaks, too late for us. Too late for you, too late for me. The story is over, but here I sit still, the last widower of a plague. I am the survivor, left to stumble through the days with no guiding star.  An icy finger nettles my insides with a tickling fear, a dread quiver of animal panic. If I closed my eyes now, I might be lost. The small shop’s walls are covered with sports posters: the Sox, the Pats, the Celts. In the periphery, lurking in the shadowy shimmering edge of tangibility, just beneath the smooth hum of the ordinariness of things, out of sight of the others, something I cannot name stirs. That dread sensation makes me jump in the chair.

He pauses, the blade lifts off my cheek. "OK?" he asks.
"Yes, Ok, sorry," I say from far away. I am not unmoored, not yet, but the knot that once held, gently slips a bit. I feel the unraveling begin, that fraying of the tethering cord.
In the other chair, a handsome Harvard boy is getting a neat trim. His hair does flop and sweep, it hangs in his forehead with that casual smugness that will never be mine.
“OK?” says my barber.
I look at myself, newly shorn and clean, I run my hand over my scalp. It feels  soft, velvety, smooth.
I smile, a tiny twitch of my upper lip.
“Good?” he smiles back.
“Good.” I nod.
He brushes me down with soft bristles, shoos away pesky hairs off my sweater. He sweeps up the pile of dead hair to make ready for the next customer.  
At the register I pay and hand him his tip, he thanks me and holds something out to me.
It’s a lollipop, red, the kind they hand out to little boys after their first haircut.
“See you next time?” he says.
“Yes,” I say.

Outside I bundle up, zip up. Mass Ave is loud with traffic. Buses rush by, cabs and cars and bikes all jam the street. The rain has stopped. I trudge through wet leaves that clutter the sidewalk. My battered keds are damp. In a coffee shop the tables are crowded. People are warming up over steaming mugs tea. There are scones and cakes and delicate blue plates full of crumbs. Laughter and jazzy  music comes from the place. In the window, I catch my reflection: the lollipop in my mouth, my slivery cropped cut, the face that looks back at me.

I slip again into that empty space, that voided place, adrift. The night will be fathoms deep, and cold, a little death that waits for me. Once more I fall into it, into the depths of a lone, starless sky. 

Friday, February 10, 2017
this piece appeared in Dime Show Review
new fiction:

Gypsy Toe Dancer

The Danube is not blue. Tonight, anyway, it is green and deeply murky. Something fetid rises up in the mists of it, a miasma stink that will always remind me of this sad city, a scent of rotting vegetation and dank, dead things that float to the surface of its turbid waters. When the white bulbs flicker along the Chain bridge, their reflection is almost beautiful, but it’s a trick of the light, the winking eye of a stranger that is there, and fleeting, gone.

The waiter is giving me looks, I’ve overstayed my welcome under the dripping red awning of the corner cafĂ©. Here, on the flat bank of the river, the slapping waves and the hush of rain might lull me, but he coughs discreetly and jingles the change in his apron pocket to remind me of his near presence. I toss some coins onto the tiny zinc table top, where my scotch is half drunk, a last cigarette smolders in the overflowing ashtray. With a deft movement he scoops up the money, and leaves me to myself. As he goes inside, the sound of a violin, and an offkey piano, a dancing tune, plaintive and sweet, soars and falls, people inside sway and sing, a few at the bar and couples at candlelit tables, Americans and a few Brits mostly, who laugh too loud and too much, in this city where no one seems to laugh, but these folks who are warm and snug and drunk and happy inside. I am the only one fool enough to be out here in the cold and the damp evening, where the icy air is tinged with the rot of decay, where the moon is never seen in the steel night sky, where spring seems far away.  

I’m in no rush. There is no hurry, no need to go back to the hotel, not now. I know he won’t be there. I know he will be gone. There is no need to rush back to the room, where the bed will be freshly remade and neatly turned down and the maid will have tidied up, there will be no damp towels where he left them on the tiled bathroom floor, no hairs in the sink from his morning shave, no clothes of his in the drawer where he kept his things, even the sweater he borrowed from me will be gone. No trace of him will be left. No signs of our last scene. All will be put right, and the room will be like any anonymous room in any hotel in any city in the world, and he will be gone. But still, there pulses the slight possibility, as vague as the fading light in this hour when the tired day surrenders to darkness, that maybe he still waits, a sputtering hope that maybe he is still there in that room as I left him, I shrink half afraid to find him, more afraid not to find him, afraid even more that I never will. As long as I sit here, with this drink by my hand, and the river running foul and shimmering with faint lights, the truth of that lonely room is still unknown. Still, he will be gone.

The first time I saw him, he stole my lighter. He’d bummed a smoke, and casually pocketed my blue bic. I suppose this should have been a sign of things to come. If I noticed it, I pretended I didn’t. but it was a sign, the first of many. There would be others.

If you want to know, we met like this:
It was raining, the old city seemed to sigh in the gray mist, a faded Hapsburg lady shivering in a once fine shawl. Rain spouted from gutters, shutters banged shut, crumbling facades mutely lined the silent street where I stumbled along the pavement out from the baths, where the warm waters were supposed to soothe away the damp coldness, but  my bones still ached. I was miserably hungover from last night’s debauch, the last in a parade of nights, the fever at the end of a millennium, the last spring of the old century, the end of the world, perhaps.

I came to the famous Turkish bathhouse on the advice of the teenaged concierge. “Very good” he’d said, twice, touching his acne scarred nose absently, then holding out his hand for a tip. You learn quickly, nothing is free here, but anything can be bought.

I took his directions and went to find the place."Just a few minutes away by foot, " he promised. I went down meandering half streets to read battered signs on some corners in unpronounceable arrangements of letters that seemed familiar and yet alien, where on every street, churches to some unknown martyred saints stood, falling edifices with statuary and crosses, all looking the same,  alongside squat apartment blocks, grit filled lots where old places had been blasted to make way for more ugly squat boxes, tiny grassless parks where sullen children played in the gravel with a stick and a ball, thick limbed ladies in sturdy shoes bustling from bakeries with brick like loaves tucked under their arms or stuffed in burlap bags full of onions and bottles of wine,  lumbering trucks on paving stones, and bicycles zipping by. Accidently, eventually I found the ancient round domed building on a formerly grand main avenue, where stunted trees grew up out of the concrete sidewalk.

The baths are for men only. Once divested of clothes, clad in a rough square of dingy cloth, you walk barefoot through a labrynth of dark rooms where the masculine of the species stretches and groans in all its voluptuous naked sagging hairy tumescence.  I got a massage. An enormous fat man in a diaper loincloth slapped me around for several minutes with a fine wisk broomlike implement, then he hosed me down with a blast of frigid water before pushing me into the first of a series of baths, interconnected caverns each lit by a sole aperture in the ceiling like a one eyed god looking down at his most loathsome creation, this sprawling heap of lurid nudity made eerie in the glowing  phosphorous atmosphere. Men of every shape and size lolled along the stone rim wall of the bath. No one spoke. Only the gurgling of the constant spring echoed in the chamber like space. Even the hustlers seemed listless, offering barely a glance and a flick of inky black lashes, before slipping back into the whispering corners.

I did not stay long. I grabbed my clothes from the locker in a wall of metal lockers and dressed in the changing room, watched by an olive-skinned boy for hire lingered too long by the sinks, and an ancient attendant propped himself up against the wall, with fresh towels at the ready, for a small fee, of course.

 I stood before the unblinking 100 year old matron to pay my bill on exiting. The massage and entrance to the baths costs a little over 8 crowns. I handed her a 10 note, which she took, not once raising her eyes to meet mine-as the sole female in the establishment she must have turned blind to the fleshy sins of men long ago- her claw like hand grasped my damp bill, and it vanished into an unseen drawer. I stayed, apologetically running my hand through my still wet hair, waiting for my change, but she remained as still as a battleship, expressionless behind a pound of caked powder. at some point, I surmised she was keeping my overpayment as her own emoulement. Even this, her surly muteness, costs something here. Just about Two crowns. Not a bad exchange, considering I’ve paid more, for less; much more for much less.
“Goodnight Sweetheart,” I said. She nodded, a barely perceptible movement of her head, her coiffed hair a tight coil pinned up, exactly the size and shape of the turd of a larger breed of dog, and nearly the same shit brown washed out color.

On the street I felt the rain on my face, and stopped to light a cigarette- the least fatal of the bad habits I’ve picked up again since coming here. There is something in the soot stained gray sameness of the place, something in the dankness that permeates from the old stone, that makes you want to hasten death, by inches, by degrees, and here no one seems to care. With each exhale I gave up a little bit more of myself to the wet afternoon.
“May I have one?” a voice said, a voice that came through the rolling mist, and then a face: handsome and hard boned, a mouth that smiled that tight lipped grimace of these joyless people, eyes  black and glittering, with a hint of a question, or an invitation maybe, or maybe I saw in his eyes what I wanted to see- to tell you truthfully, I was alone, and lonely, physically raw and mentally exhausted after too many nights that would have made a Roman blush, at the end of an endless, sleepless rutting, a drug fueled, seamless twilight blur of men and hotel rooms and back streets, and so I arrived on the pavement in front of the old Turkish baths like a fallen smut smeared angel beyond tarnish, beyond redemption, bone weary and so very alone. At this moment all I craved was the little death of sleep, the dress rehearsal for the last act I was too numb to play, but here he was, on cue, my last knight.

“You are very tired?” he asked then, reading my mind, one of many tricks he was to master. He lit the Camel from the pack I offered. That’s when my lighter, that first small insignificant thing, disappeared at his touch.
“American,” he said, “very nice” I was not sure if he meant the cigarette, or me, but he blew a plume of smoke in my face in a manner most suggestive, with that almost smile on his hard cruel looking mouth, and those black eyes looking at me.

Very nice” he said again.

Monday, December 26, 2016

A STORY OF THE TURK                Norman Belanger                           January 2015

a highly fictionalized recounting of events that may or may not have occurred.

   Grand meme and grand pepe died a few weeks apart from each other, in that sunless winter of 1969, when they were both very old.  it was said at the time by the family  that the couple  loved each other so much, neither could live long without the other.

   after my great grandparents passed away, we visited the shrine that was their apartment, in the basement of the mulitgenerational home in thornton, which was until that time strictly off limits. To me, that visit still has the vividness of a childhood dream.

   The place was dim and dusty. strange tapestries and ornate woven rugs covered the walls but did little to keep out the damp. a smell like dried flowers, something  secretive and dank, crept up from the floor.  there was a closet  space where the old woman slept on a cot, and there hung a heavy gold frame over a battered chest of drawers.

   from deep in the shadows, the picture of a young man looked back at me. his gaze was defiant, with a startling steadiness.  He had penetrating dark eyes, and a black mustache, he wore a costume- a blue fez, baggy pants and a white, blousey shirt. The hilt of a dagger was tucked into the sash at his waist.

“that’s the Turk” someone whispered, and a mystery was born. “who was  he?” I asked, but I was hurried out of the room. Still, I would never forget that portrait I saw only that once.  I would never forget those eyes.

   Over the 40 or so years since,though the aunts and uncles were reluctant to talk about the romantic figure ofthe Turk, I have pieced together the half recalled tales, and since I am the oldest son of an oldest son of an oldest son, perhaps it is my job to record the story as I know it.

What follows will be part family myth, part outright lie, part plagiarism, and somewhere, a bit of the truth. I don’t know which is which.

   I was told my grand pepe was joseph, that he was a Frenchman who sailed to cananda to work in the lumbermills. He married a 15 year old girl mary, the daughter of a mic mac indian and an itinerant worker. My great grandmother was known as marie to most who remembered her.

   They lived in a place called Three Rivers, or trois rivieres, in the wilderness, an  endless green forest of pines, where there was always snow. By all accounts, the mill town was a lawless, booming place after the first world war, a hard drinking, hard brawling, scrambling, rambling, hard living kind of a place, where home brewed whiskey and fistfights passed the long winter hours,where fornicating and rutting prevailed after the liquor was all drunk and the fists lay dormant, where the work day whistle blew in the lumber yard each dawn,where the machinery roared to life and the saws buzzed, where pine dust floated in the air and coated every surface not already whitened by the constant snow,where blue shadows brought early evening to the valley and the drinking and rousing resumed.

   As the story goes, mary and joseph enjoyed their first years together in a little white house where they welcomed children that came with a certain regularity.  there were four offspring, the talkative Jeanette, a tow headed toddler joseph junior, blue eyed  Bernadette in rompers, and Maurice still onthe breast, when one spring morning joseph senior hopped on his bicycle with alittle kit bag, supposedly to go in to town for a pack of cigarettes.  maybe, he was illiterate and could not read the signs directing him back homeward. maybe, he went on a bender and suffered amnesia brought on by wood grain moonshine from the neighbor’s still. Or maybehe simply left, took off, disappeared, abandoned marie and her brood to survive as best they could.

  how she did manage, is anyone’s guess,  though it’s been said she was a cook, she worked in a laundry, she wove patterned rugs to sell, she took in boarders. joseph was presumed dead when there was no word of him season after season after season.  a son born in late February of 1921, some 22months after the above mentioned ride to the tobacco shop, suggests that the young mother, if she grieved,  sought some solace in those cold nights bereft of her husband.  The father of the child was not named, and there is no birth certificate in existence.

a foreign man, a mr karaman,  rented a room in the home around this time. he was known for years by the family as Uncle Aga, though it can be supposed he may have in fact sired the boy child who was born that night of the white blizzard.  this was never acknowledged or confirmed by anyone in the family, but it was admitted by some that marie’s son was the very image of the swarthy turk.

    then, a miracle perhaps, the wayward pere joseph peddled back into the valley, back to the little white house, back to the wife and family he had left nearly 8 years before.  Jeanette was by then practically a teenager, working at the mill where she swept mounds of choking pine dust.  JJ was in school. Bernadette and Maurice had grown tall. And there was the child called louis, a dark eyed, dark skinned,stout son, unknown and unfathered by joseph but rechristened by him on his return and known forever more as norman, after the old French town where the  belanger family had come from. norman would one day grow up to become mygrandfather, my pepe, and I would be named after him.

     the depression came and the mill was shut down,seemingly overnight. the family, including uncle aga who still lived upstairs in his attic room, left Canada for  rhode island. supposedly,  uncle karaman had a half brother, or a cousin, or the cousin of a friend, someone named kutamar who worked in a paper mill and had a house on the outskirts of providence.  The man wanted a wife, and it was decided that Jeanette would be married to him in exchange for room and board until the rest of the family got its footing. The belanger clan would never leave the house on star street in thornton.

  Mr karaman then drops out of our story some time after the move from trois riviers.  My father’s uncle junior always maintained that aga was shot behind the sons of Italy club when he was caught cheating at cards. Auntie bernadette often whispered that she heard a jealous husband ran him out of town.

  still,  whatever his fate, his picture would remain on the wall of marie’s  bedroomfor the rest of her life,  in the private basement apartment of  the family house, the home where her husband and children and grandchildren lived,  she kept her secret, a memento of the mysterious handsome man with black eyes.

   The portrait of my greatgrandfather aga karaman itself seems to have vanished sometime after the death of the old people, quite possibly taken by one who wished to keep the whiteness of the family legacy unsullied by speculation, a relic lost in the mists of memory, soon to be forgotten altogether perhaps, another mystery unremembered, unspoken---until now.