A Short Tale of Shame - Excerpt
The phone of the girl next to him buzzed like a fly: Hello, I love you, won’t you tell me your name, so they listen to ’60s music. Krustev felt flattered, as if he had written the song. He hadn’t written it, but he had played it in one of his wilder bands back in the day, which was called Stinkweed—archeologists had just discovered the ancient sanctuary near the village of Stinkweed, shades of pagan priests and memory-weary stones. The singer, for his part, chewed stinkweed and spent whole days in the kingdom of the shades. The band didn’t last long.
The girl stirred, dug her phone out of her cargo pants and rasped: Hello? She explained that she couldn’t go wherever they were inviting her because she was on her way to the Aegean Sea. The other end of the line was apparently envious. The date was put off for some other awakening. Krustev didn’t start a conversation with her. He could sense her clumsily cleaning off the sleep that had clung to her so strongly precisely because it had been so short. The girl sighed and rubbed her eyes.
I know you, she said suddenly. Me? You. You’re Elena’s dad. Krustev let out a laugh, only later would he realize how long it had been since that had happened. I can’t deny it, he said, and who are you? Maya. I’ve known Elena since we were kids. Do you remember me?
Maya. A fleeting memory of a studious little blonde girl who perhaps sat next to his daughter in elementary school carelessly flitted through Krustev’s mind. The young woman now sitting on the other side of the stick shift was also blonde, but she didn’t look too studious. Maya. I think I do remember you, Krustev said. We went to the same grade school, Maya continued, then we lost touch, but then we found each other again. It was really funny, because both of us had changed so much that it was like we were meeting again for the first time. But we liked each other again. She’s in America now, Krustev said. I know, said Maya, we used to see each other pretty often before she left, once she had a party at your place and I saw your picture there, otherwise I wouldn’t have recognized you. Krustev mentally noted the compliment. The family picture which hung in a frame in the living room was taken five years ago. He had been only twenty-five when his daughter was born. She was now twenty, so that meant that’s how old the girl next to him was. Sometimes it occurred to him that he was getting old, just as it occurs to you that you’ve forgotten to call an old acquaintance whom you ran into on the street and promised to call. He rubbed his stubbly face with his palm. Have you kept in touch since she’s been there? Actually, no, Maya said, she’s somehow dropped off the radar. Or maybe I have. Krustev could smell some kind of intrigue, but he left it for later, he had fired off his questions solely to find out whether the girl knew something of the events in his family, that’s how various concerned relatives and business partners, whose repulsively soft and sweaty hands reached out to squeeze him in insipid sympathy, put it, but since she hadn’t been in touch with Elena, most likely she didn’t know. He was tired of everyone knowing. That’s why he’d taken off in his car. The trees along the roadside didn’t know.
It hadn’t even crossed his mind to pick up hitchhikers along the way, in fact, he had hardly seen any hitchhikers in recent years; the person who until recently had hitchhiked either now had a car or had left for somewhere much further away, like his daughter. She had hitched a lot in high school, that is, her official stories always said otherwise, but Krustev and her mother could tell, they worried, but kept quiet, after all, they were young enough to re--member the stunts they had pulled at her age. Only Elena seemed not to know that they knew she hitchhiked, and for quite some time Krustev wondered what the point of this secrecy was, but afterwards decided that his daughter simply needed to keep secrets from her parents and while it had seemed laughable to him at first, later he accepted it as normal. Over the past few years, however, hitchhikers had become few and far between, most often foreign couples with huge backpacks, with skin tanned and hair bleached by the sun, sometimes he stopped for them, just for some company, but their stories inevitably turned out to be identical, the stories of young, curious Europeans wading into the weed patch of Balkan exoticism, and he had almost stopped picking people up, he only did it when some completely sudden impulse whispered to him and in those cases he never regretted it. Now that same impulse had stopped him in that place, the first straight stretch since he had entered the mountains, and he was surprised that such a place even existed, a long sigh in the road before the next bend. There were three of them. The other girl and the young man were still dozing in the back seat and Krustev suspected they had also seen his picture in the living room. He felt a slightly unpleasant tickle: he was driving strangers who had been in his house and had probably even properly trashed it, as usually happened at Elena’s parties. But perhaps they were his stroke of luck, they had a destination, they wanted to reach Thasos. He envied them. He had simply gathered up some luggage, checked his credit cards, and taken off in the car just like that, to wherever he felt like. And when he had stopped for them, and they had asked where he was headed, he had frankly admitted that he didn’t know, it hadn’t crossed his mind the whole morning that he didn’t know where he was going. Now this is what I call hitching, the black-haired girl declared, as she settled into the back seat. He jammed their backpacks into the trunk and said since they were going to Thasos, he would drive them to the port at Datum, but he didn’t think—it only fleetingly occurred to him—why shouldn’t he, too, continue on to the island by ferryboat, maybe even along with them, he didn’t so much need the company—he needed to know where he was going. Did this make him a tagalong, but hey, they were the ones who had gotten into his car.