This Town

Oleg, scraping the big bolt cutter along the concrete, the noise waking no one because, by this time, they are either in the deepest REM or hopelessly turning in their scratchy bed linen, Oleg says, “Sooner or later, this town will die anyway.” He spits a sloppy speck of phlegm onto the soda pop cans and fast-food Styrofoam boxes piled in the ditch by the side of the road.

I don’t really like Oleg, but he’s my best friend. In 5th grade, some divine intervention shifted the focus of his dabblings in Strappado torture from dough-faced Jaczek to me and I told him that bullying was a suboptimal solution to his father’s drinking problem, but I wouldn’t mind staying on after school to practise a couple kicks and punches, as long as I could swing some too.

I didn’t have to know that his father was an alcoholic to know that he was an alcoholic. I mean, it was a rather safe assumption to make. In this town.

Oleg says, this town is his dog Laika that needed to be put down – that’s what mercy demanded, and that’s what mercy demands now.

Laika had those seizures that made her twitch the way dogs sometimes do when they dream. We used to giggle about it before we cried. Oleg’s father put her down with a hammer he borrowed from work. This man who’d named his dead son Yuri, after the cosmonaut. His dog Laika.

I hope I never love anything this badly.

The sign at the gate says, “No trespassing.” In faded black on yellow, it warns, “Authorised personnel only.” And already, you can hear it crying, howling. If it was daylight, you’d see people hurry past with their faces turned down, down as if guilty of a shared crime.

It was their last attempt at saving the town, at bringing in tourists to fill the high-rise hotel they’d built a decade earlier in what used to be a nature reserve, right by the big lake, the hotel that now stood empty – it having destroyed all the pretty nature you were meant to look at.

Those new tourists, they were supposed to marvel at the exotic beast; stand in awe at nature’s beauty and might. But caged in the way it was, with no companion to share its ill fate, it started to rot away like the cut Carnations my mother laid out on the kitchen table every Sunday. Its glossy fur became scraggly and wan, the clear green of its eyes, like moss through a riverbed, became muddied and pale, its movements, once full of the exact force of a ballerino at the national theatre they show on late night TV, those movements were now as sluggish as Oleg’s father. And then, of course, there was the howling. A pleading sound toward a higher power, god, or more reliably the moon; something that rips right through your petty heart.

Oleg, taking the bolt cutter (borrowed from his father’s workshop) to the first chain and pressing the two handles together with all his strength, pressing the words through his teeth, he says, “People, they want to own beauty.” He bares his teeth in exertion, the veins in his hands and arms swelling like rivers in the rain. “They want to own beauty, and that’s what kills it.”

My father, after they let him go from the hotel, having no use for a concierge, he started painting those copies, of Van Goghs, Gaugins, Goyas. Our basement is filled with a dozen Mona Lisas, a handful Starry Nights, a bevy of Danaës, a sea of Olympias, reams of Nighthawks. Each stroke a little less distinct, a little paler. The Birth of Venus hangs in the Ivanov’s bedroom, Jaczek’s parents put it in their hallway, even the mayor is said to own a copy (although I heard it’s above the toilet.)

My father says, everyone should be able to own such beauty. Not just the oligarchs. But the poster stuff, that just doesn’t do the trick – has no soul.

My father is an alright man. He’s reasonable and kind. When he’s drunk, he doesn’t beat around like Oleg’s father; he just falls asleep in his spot by the TV, and when he isn’t, you can talk with him about galaxies and books and reincarnation. My mother is the same, but whenever they’re together, they become the failures they see in each other. She can confidently barter at the market about the price of fish, can discuss the grievances in Somalia with measured eloquence, but whenever she’s in the same room as my father, the air grows thick with her self-doubt, stutters and stupidity.

The beast, it cowers in one corner of its cage. Its low groaning makes your bones trill, it drowns out my breathing and fills the night with the foul smell of the rotten meat they feed it.

And Oleg, he says, “People aren’t good at love,” he says, “Sometimes, you just need to let go.” And he feeds the last chain into the jaws of the bolt cutter, and he says, “Sooner or later,” shutting its jaws tight, he says, “sooner or later, this town will die anyway.”

© Deva Mari