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Authors: Alan Cheuse

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BOOK: The Fires
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Back in bed after taking that second tablet, he lay there trying to reason out all of the elements of their situation. That was just the kind of mind he had. But it was not the right time. He already felt close to exhaustion. And he had a long day ahead of him, and only then, after those meetings, would he fly back east, to Tashkent. And then make the drive into the Kara Kum. At least there would be a driver for that part of the journey.

So no worries, really, about that. Just this annoyance in his hip and a corresponding ache in his mind which, as he drifted toward sleep seemed to grow and then fade, grow and fade.

He floated off, and then came back again, hoisted up from below the surface of sleep by the uncomfortable burning sensation where his hip met the mattress. There was just something. Something he was carrying. Couldn't even explain it to himself. Just the falling off. Never admit it to her. But he understood. She was retreating from desire, though not from love. And he felt the same way. Which was good. Coincidence. So no uneven factors in this equation. She, me. Feeling the same, or at least something similar. Or not feeling it. So that once having put this desire behind us, like the cocoon or chrysalis of our earlier stage, we might love each other fiercely in another form?

Up early, noises in the hallway, and after his shower from the window he looked down onto streets already clogged with traffic. He wanted to call her, to tell her something of what he had figured out in the night. But he had to hurry off to the first of his meetings, and then another. By lunch, he had already turned his mind toward the flight to Tashkent. It was an opulent meal, presided over by that same portly Russian, once an official, now an executive, in the company offices. Soup, two meat courses, a roasted bird, cheeses, sweet cakes and pies for dessert.

He shook his head at the sight of it. So much had changed in less than a decade. Imagine what he might see yet within his lifetime!

Yes, Paul said, quite amazing. Miraculous.

But he had his mind on the trip, and calling her.

He had just spoken with her. So why call again so soon? He wanted to call her. Why should he need an excuse or a reason?

The heavy meal stayed with him through the afternoon. He dozed in the taxi on the way to the airport.

Goodbye, Moscow, he said to the city, feeling quite strange after he did so. He would be back in a week. So why goodbye? So long, he said to himself. I should say only, so long.

So long.

Settling in his seat in the airplane, he felt as though he might be able to sleep. But as soon as they took off he found himself unable to comfortably close his eyes. So he worked, dozing on and off, for the next six hours. I'll call her when I get to the airport, he told himself. But with all the time zones between them, what time would that be for her? He was too tired to figure it. Closed his eyes. Opened them again to find the flight attendant, trim and attractive in her dark uniform sweater and skirt, standing at his shoulder.

“Sir, something to drink?” she said.

Olive skin, oval eyes, slight squint when she smiled.

Where was she from? he wondered. Giving her his order. She smiled, her teeth were gray. Watching her move away to the row ahead. Noticing her slender olive legs, slightly bowed. Some childhood vitamin deficiency, he decided. Overall, though, she was quite pretty. And here he was, having decided the night before that desire had ended, desiring her.

He slept a little toward what turned out to be the last hour of the flight, and felt so awful when he awoke that he decided a little
sleep was worse than no sleep at all. That didn't turn out to be right. It would have been better, much, much better, if he had slept the entire flight.

Because his driver, tall, thin, with almond eyes, leaning against the side of the car and smoking a cigarette, was drunk. So Paul ordered him into the back seat and with a sigh and a big heart of regret took the wheel himself.

Sun going down. Heading west into the hazy slanting rays of light. To the south the jagged, snow-capped profile of the Hindu Kush rising as if out of a dream. Behind him the steppes—last lights of Tashkent glimmering in the rear view mirror.

And the driver slumped over to one side in the back seat.

How lovely it would be to catch some sleep himself!

But the plant lay ahead, a hundred plus kilometers into the Kara Kum.

Winds coming up, swirling dust alongside the patchy road. Good cars, these Mercedes, but the best suspension system in the world is eventually going to go to hell from riding these roads. There goes the sun. Darkness falling upon the desert with the swiftness of a lighting cue in a stage play—whoomp! All black. Took a minute for him to adjust, where suddenly he went from seeing the narrow strip of paving snaking out ahead of the car away along toward some point in infinity—though he knew that if he kept driving he would eventually reach the great cotton growing fields around Urgench on the other side of the desert—and suddenly having the world reduced to the roadway within the limits of the headlamps.

“Mr. Morgan?” The driver stirred in the back seat.

“Yes?”

“You want me to drive now?”

“I'll keep the wheel for a while,” he said. “If I get too tired, I'll tell you.”

But the truth was that he was already so monstrously tired that he didn't want to stop the car, but wanted desperately to keep going. This was probably hallucinatory, to think that he shouldn't stop because that would cost them their momentum, but he wasn't thinking much by now but rather was just beginning to play those games we play when we're behind the wheel and our very blood seems to turn into a sleeping potion, urging us with every pulse of our hearts to rest for a moment and close our eyes.

He sang under his breath: Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey, a kiddley divey too, wooden shoe? A song one of his aunts sang to him in childhood. And then he spelled it out for himself, for the sleeping driver, for the desert all around him. Mares eat oats and does eat oats, and little lambs eat ivy…A kid'll eat ivy, too, wouldn't you?

After that he recited a joke or two. The one about the old man the cop found weeping on the park bench…Why did that one come to mind? Who knew? And the one about the American who dies and finds himself at the gates to Hell, and sees a US entrance with no one waiting there and a Russian entrance with a long line in front of it…Old joke left over from the old regime…He had laughed at it, though, at one of those dinners in Moscow…So far away now in time, the old days, and this new life come upon them, and he thought of distances, and the distance between him and Gina…all those miles, kilometers, how many was it in kilometers? And time zones? He tried to count the time zones but gave up after a moment, trying to focus on a small flickering light on the horizon.

A fire? A signal fire? A village in flames? A burning bush?

A few minutes went by—he was still singing to himself and then singing aloud…

Softly, as in a morning sunrise…

Old jazz tune. He had loved jazz, ever since he was a kid. A kiddley divey…

And the light, the fire? Disappeared…

He found himself, the car to which he was joined at the foot and the hands, slowing down…a kiddley divey too, wooden shoe?

The light appeared again, wavering but ever-present now, and a little larger, as if the fire were floating on the darkness, and the darkness, ocean of night, desert become ocean, pushing it along on strong currents…Becoming cold, desert night, he turned the heat up a tad, thinking, give it a minute, then shut it off because don't want to warm up too much because too sleepy…

He opened his eyes, feeling the car swerve ever so slightly to the right, and it wouldn't have strayed off the road if the road hadn't been so narrow, but now—spicy juice of adrenaline shooting through his limbs—he was awake and on top of it again. Just that instant. But got to watch it…

Watch the light, the fire light fluttering in the dark.

“Mr. Morgan?”

The driver sat up and leaned forward.

“I'm all right,” Paul said. “Just sit back, relax. Well, what the hell, you're probably so relaxed already you don't know what to do.”

The driver lighted up a cigarette.

For a moment, all seemed well in hand, the car, the road, the dark, the fire in the distance, the smoke rising in the rear of the car…

The light disappeared once more, and Paul gave the car more juice, feeling himself straining forward at the eyeballs, as though he could somehow see through the dark all the way to their destination. And then he let his foot go a little, and the car slowed down, and he hitched up his shoulders, settled in the seat, took a deep breath, tasted that bitter smoke, thinking to himself, all right,
I admit it, I'm beat now, a little while longer and I'll pull over and let the bastard drive.

The light reappeared, closer this time, and wavering less. Watching it dance along ahead of them, how far he just couldn't tell. Minutes went by. Or seemed so. Minutes. The light ahead. This desert carries light, conducts it like electricity. Distance…Gina, yes, he must have been thinking of her…So many time zones away…He slowed down, speeded up, one more thought of her, her difficult time, so far away, wanting her close, wanting her, then closed his eyes for a second…

And awoke one last time to feel the light explode.

3.

The shock, the remorse, the sleeplessness, the discomfort she was feeling even before all this happened—it's never a good time suffering all this no matter where you are, but she arrived in Tashkent in the midst of a freak cold wave, and that seemed to make things worse. As soon as she stepped off the airplane, her limbs tingled, trembled, the chills came on.

“Last evening,” Mohammed Kirov said, “the wind arrived from the north. Quite unusual for this time of year.” He was a short man, with pale blue eyes that contrasted sharply with his olive skin.

“What happens now?” she said.

“You are tired?” he said.

She stood there, trembling so hard that it must have been difficult for him to see her nod.

He drove her to the hotel—another company car, since the other one was completely demolished; in fact, they hadn't even retrieved it from the desert road but had abandoned it in the small village some ten kilometers further along where Paul's body had been taken by the local official in charge of such things before they transported it, just this morning, to the morgue here in the city.

“It is much easier now than before,” Kirov said, “because there is an American Embassy. I have spoken to them several times already. A man will help you. He will come to the hotel in the morning.”

“Help me?” Gina said.

“With…the body,” Kirov said, looking at her briefly with those eyes, and then turning away, almost as if he were ashamed. “I will be here to help as well, if you have need of me.”

“Thank you, Mr. Kirov,” Gina said, shivering. “I may need you. My husband made a request…”

 

Gina had a terrible night, worse than her worst premenopausal tortures back home, waking every hour, trembling with what must have been a slight fever, feeling the dark close in around her as though she were the one in a coffin—but then he didn't want to lie in a coffin, did he?—remembering what he said, remembering him.

I love my life, but after it's over, there's nothing. That's what I believe in my bones. So what's the use of burying me somewhere. You love me?
She told him how much.
Then I'll always be with you, you won't need some hole in the ground where my bones are buried to remember me. Will you? No, she wouldn't,
she had said.

Gina had not thought about this since the time, it must have been ten years ago, when one night Paul looked up from his desk and told her that he had made a will and wanted her to know what was in it.

“This is standard,” he said.

“I don't want to talk about it,” she said. “I know it's completely irrational, but that's the way I am. I didn't like to
touch pictures of insects in books when I was a child. And I don't want to talk about this.”

“You at least ought to hear about how I want to be taken care of.”

“Taken care of?”

“When I die.”

“You're not going to die in the near future,” she said. “We'll worry about it when it happens.”

“Just listen to you,” Paul said with a laugh.

“I know,” she said. “I can't help it.”

But before the next few minutes had gone by, he had cajoled her—that was the charm he had had over her ever since they first met—into agreeing that she would have him cremated.

“Cremated?”

Bruce Goldstein, the consular official who met with her the next morning, gave her a very odd look as he repeated the word.

“Yes,” Gina said, staring at him across the desk. “That's what he wanted.”

Goldstein, young enough and serious enough so that this might have been his first foreign service post, shook his head.

Gina leaned across the table where the remains of his breakfast lay—she had no appetite at all but had ordered a pot of tea just to appear sociable—hoping this boy would take pity on her. Despite all of the torment of her sleepless night and the constant ache that she now felt on the left side of her chest, she still retained some small amount of rationality. And this prompted her to wonder if he looked at her in this way not because she was a problem that had been dumped in his lap but
simply because of how she thought she must appear to him. Haggard, dried up, worn by grief to a zombie-like state in which she moved along with her duties, head bowed, still trembling a little from that fever which might have come on her with the current cold wave.

“Will you help me with this, please?”

Goldstein squinted at her from behind his small, wire-framed eyeglasses.

“I will, but it's not going to be easy. This is a Muslim country now. Well, it always was Muslim, but the Soviets put a chill on the religion. But since independence…”

She crumpled then, sitting there in the nearly empty restaurant, indifferent waiters standing at some distance—why did she notice such things in moments like this? who knew?—and suddenly feeling all the air go out of her, her arms jerking awkwardly across the table, knocking cups and cutlery aside, her head sinking down so that her forehead touched the place setting.

“Mrs. Morgan?”

Goldstein came around to her side of the table.

“Are you all right?”

Her limbs trembled—that same chill, something she ate, something she breathed, or the wind from the north blowing down across the tundra and taiga, high desert and mountain, or all of this together to make a terrible force against her—ice in her throat and breasts—her head aching so hard that she feared her skull might burst open—and in her thighs a throbbing emptiness, something she had felt only once before, when she had delivered a dead infant.

“Please,” she said, suddenly following an urge to stand up.

“Of course,” Goldstein said, putting his arms around her.

“You'll help me?”

“Yes, I will,” he said.

So odd—she could feel him hard against her.

“You promise?” she said as she pulled away. Her hands went to her hair, to her face.

“Yes,” he said, lowering his eyes in an embarrassed way.

“Thank you,” she said, snatching up the napkin and touching it to her eyes.

He excused himself, giving her his card and saying that he would call as soon as he could. She folded the card over once, twice, four times on her way up to her room. Then she lay down on the bed and tried to sleep.

Just like Paul, as she had imagined him. Beaten down by time and travel, so exhausted that there was nothing that could help him except perhaps pills which he always refused to take. But then he was taking the medication for the pain in his hip. The doctor had warned him. No driving at night. She jumped up from the bed, filled with anger. Didn't he know better! How could he have done this to himself! Done this to
her!

She reached for the telephone and began a call home. It was—what?—nine time zones earlier, or ten? Or was it ten time zones ahead? When the call went through, it rang and rang. Finally, an answering machine.

“Hello, you have reached the office of Dr. Betsy Cohen—”

She hung up, took some deep breaths and reached the operator again, trying another number. So much easier to call now, Paul had told her, because all the calls didn't have to be funneled through the state apparatus where they could be monitored.

I don't know who would want to listen in to this call, Gina said to herself, unless they had an interest in misery.

“Janice?”

“Hello?”
Her sister, at the distant end of the line, sounded as though she had just come in the door of her apartment. Gina couldn't remember what time it was there. She remembered her sister through a haze—she hadn't spoken to her in months.

“I'm in Tashkent,” Gina told her, and began to explain why.

“No, no, no!”
her sister screamed.
“Oh, Gina, I'm so sorry! Are you all right?”

“Do I sound all right?”

“No, you don't. You sound awful.”

“It's the connection, Jan,” she said. “Believe me, I'm holding on. I have business here to do.”

“Business, what business?”

Gina told her about Paul's request.

“I didn't know he wanted that,”
her sister said.

Her voice suddenly faded, replaced by crackling static.

“That's what he wants,” Gina said, continuing to speak as if her sister were right there in the room. Or inside her head. “Or wanted. God, to say that in the past tense! It's so awful. You change a tense, he's dead, not, I mean, because you changed the tense, but just such a simple thing in language, and it means so much! We never talked about it. Why would we talk about it? No reason. You don't think about these things. Except at some point he must have. And decided what he wanted. He wasn't a very religious person…Oh, there's that
fucking
past tense again! Oh, Jan!”

Her sister, not usually so sympathetic, this time lent her her ear.

“I should be telling you that I have to hang up, that I have all of this business to take care of here, Jan, but I don't want to hang up. I want to hear your voice.”

“I'm flying out,”
her sister said.

“Don't be silly,” Gina said. “I'll finish this business today. And be gone by the time you get here. It's a long flight. Over many time zones. I can't even begin to think about why they have so many damned time zones here, and we have so few.”

“Do your business,”
Jan said.
“But I want you to call me tonight. Promise? No matter what time. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“And go to the embassy. There's an embassy, isn't there? They can help you.”

Gina pictured young Bruce Goldstein, the strangeness of his hard cock against her when they embraced. For the inexperienced, a first experience.

“They're helping,” she said. “They're sympathetic.”

“They better be,”
her sister said.
“That's their job.”

Gina took a deep breath.

“And on top of all this….”

“What is it?”
her sister said.

“I feel so strange.”

“Your husband…Oh, honey, please…do you have any thing with you? Some kind of medication?”

“Paul took his medication,” Gina said. “The jerk! The bastard! The fool!”

Silence.

“What? Gina, I'm losing you at this end.”

“I have to go,” Gina said. “I will call you.”

Another try at a call to Dr. Betsy Cohen, this time to her home number. They were friends more often than they
were doctor and patient, but these past few weeks, the way she had been feeling, it reassured her that her pal knew medicine. But what could medicine know?

“You have reached the telephone of—”

Gina cut off the call and sat back down on the bed. She noticed that her breath was coming up short and punchy. Remembering some exercise from a yoga class she had taken years before, she tried to calm herself by regulating her breath.
In-take slow, ex-hale slow-er…In-take slow, ex-hale slow-er…
Maybe it was beginning to work. The day was growing brighter outside the window. She closed her eyes against it, lay back against the pillows.
In-take slow, ex-hale slow-er…
She pictured her father's body in the funeral home about ten years before, his face rendered alien by the embalming process. He had raised her to think of a place after death called Heaven. Seeing him there in his casket so shocked her that it did away with whatever residual hope she might have clung to about an afterlife. He looked like a zombie in a midnight horror show.

But not so fast, girl, she could hear her father say. That's just the body. What about the spirit? All your college education, did it kill the spirit in you? This body is just the container for the spirit, he said. You drink the water, not the glass. A phrase out of a literature course came to mind, whose source she couldn't quite recall. Wouldn't it be pretty to think so? Hemingway, yes, it was Hemingway. Papa, he liked to be called.

Papa, she said, is there a heaven? And if there is, will you talk to Paul now, Daddy? she said to him in her mind. You're together now, if there is someplace to be together. But if there were, why cremation? Could she take a chance? But then
if there were a heaven, he wouldn't need the body. Not if Daddy was right. The water, not the glass.

She sat up, thinking she heard a noise. Then fell back onto the bed again. She felt almost as if she had been poisoned. Her throat dry, her stomach aching, her head aching. She began to weep, and then cough, and then cry again. After a while her crying subsided and she lay there, as still as she could make herself, listening to the sounds of the foreign room.

It was so bizarre when she awoke to the beeping of the telephone, knowing immediately what had happened. Six months without a period and now, suddenly, she was bleeding.

“Hello?”

She stood there, shivering, clutching a fistful of cloth in one hand and pressing it against her crotch, staring out the window at the treetops, the white sky beyond.

“Mrs. Morgan, I think I've found a way,”
said Bruce Goldstein, his voice so faint and the line so full of static that he might have been calling from America rather than the embassy here in the city.

 

“The logistics are rather complicated,” he said when he met her in the lobby. The place had been nearly empty when Gina had met with him before. Now it was full of men, many of them in nicely tailored European suits. A banner across the front of the room announced in French an international conference on Boyle's Law. Whatever that was. Goldstein held out a sheaf of papers, and ushered her to a relatively quiet corner of the room. “A lot of paper to sign.”

Gina put her signature on whatever he showed her.

“So,” he said, “we're on our way.”

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