Amar

Daniel A. Hoyt

Yesterday Amar ate a half box of
raisins, two crusts of bread cemented together with toasted cheese,
seven grapes, and three squares broken off a chocolate bar. He didn’t
even have time to be hungry. Benji required the hours of the moon,
and the restaurant demanded the hours of the sun, and the skinheads,
their hate as dark as an eclipse, stole ticks of the clock from
both celestial objects.

The skinheads were rude, beer-smelling, shaven but unwashed and
pimply, and they wanted to grind his business under them, under
feet shod with boots and cruelty. They took up the brain cells that
Amar had reserved for other things: the dew of his (now-absent)
wife’s morning kisses, how Benji had metamorphosed from babying
to crawling to toddlering to talking, the pleasure of Istanbul receding
into the horizon. Instead, the skinheads demanded this space, etched
their thick black swastikas into the flesh of his memories.

Amar arrived at the restaurant, and Serge, who could lift kegs of
beer with either hand and preached to Amar the need for swift and
bloody retribution, was already at work, scrubbing the last limb
of a swastika off the bricks with fierce effort and a metal rasp.
Serge muttered something about eyeballs on skewers, and Amar watched
silently as the graffiti surrendered the last of its obscenity.
Serge, with his wrists as thick as his ankles and his coarse black
eyebrows that made children instinctively burst into tears, was
the only employee left, and Amar knew even Serge would wear away
under the friction of hate.

Serge said, “We are Turks. Our fathers were warriors.”

Silent Amar turned the sign to “Open” from “Closed,
Please Come Again,” which the skinheads apparently translated
each night as “Please Defile My Restaurant.” Silent
Amar, whose warrior father had battled only him. Whose father had
broken three of Amar’s bones, including one for luck. Just
thirty minutes after that last break (the ulna that time), his father
won the equivalent of twenty-eight thousand German marks in a crooked
dogfight and then disappeared for nine years. When his father came
back, Amar, whose left arm shook perpetually, as if he were forever
ridding his fingers of the dishwater’s brine, made himself
disappear, too, into Dresden, which now threatened to swallow him
whole.

Yesterday Amar ate a wrinkled tomato, the too-moist half of a peanut
butter and jelly sandwich, four figs that had been squashed to the
bottom of the tin by the weight of their brothers, and twelve peppermint
candies.

On the way to the restaurant he walked past the punks with their
cigarette arms and their cocaine nostrils, past the skins with their
kicking legs and their holocaust mouths. Dresden, ruined and rebuilt
and glistening in parts and broken still in others, even now, more
than fifty years after the bombings. Dresden, his adopted home for
eight years now, offered places for all these fucked-up people,
and he was sick of its hospitality.

Dresden, parts of it with a new veneer of cobble and mortar, except
everyone knew about the cracks underneath and, more important, about
how the stones had not been sturdy enough before. Dresden, with
its streets snaking through his veins, from the days when he pushed
the lunch cart, which had become the restaurant, which threatened
to become a bankruptcy of empty bricks. Dresden, and Amar never
even went to the church, which the Germans refused to refurbish,
where the angels still kept their broken faces, but he knew all
about it. After Amar put Benji to bed, those angels wrinkled up
their concrete half-noses at him as if they were about to whisper.
Amar was not sure if it were he or their rubbled tongues that never
allowed them to speak.

Serge, with his arms like legs and his legs like torsos, was already
at work with the rasp and the tongue: “It would not hurt to
slice one of them up a bit. The rest of them would hear about it,
and in that way, they would feel the knife too.”

Silent Amar wrote “Help Wanted” onto a brown paper bag
with a coal-black Magic Marker. The skinheads left their mark each
night and their urine scent, and somehow they did more than this,
flavoring Amar’s pizzas and kabobs with their fatal spices,
manureweed or shitroot or killingberry, as if the customers could
sense this colorless, odorless fictional taint. If they served two
hundred lunches, he could pay the grocer. Three hundred and the
butcher got paid too. Three fifty and the rent was secured, along
with crisp new corduroy pants for Benji. Four hundred put some marks
in Amar’s pocket. Five hundred meant he was dreaming. For
the last six weeks, they had served an average of 176 lunches a
day.

Everything is fine, he wanted to say, finer than fine. He wanted
to chant this in the street because the customers knew something
was wrong, and he needed to do something right, and the police wrote
the same reports in the same way with the same results: nothing.

When one of the skins came into the shop, Amar felt the hummingbird
in his ribs trying to fly its way out. The skinhead’s vomit-brown
pants were ripped from knee to foot, he smelled of kerosene, and
he had tiny beads of dark blue in the piss-yellow whites of his
eyes.

He leered at Amar and said, “I would like to apply for this
job. I am very good at making garbage, the kind you put on a plate
and call food.”

Silent Amar was not one of these savages. He shielded himself with
courtesy, wrung the dirty wetness from a rag into the sink, and
said calmly, “Will you please get the fuck out of my shop?
Thank you. Thank you for getting the fuck out of here.”

Yesterday Amar ate the glutinous remains of the chocolate-chip ice
cream, the carrot sticks Benji would not swallow, and three corn
dogs, the first of which was mouth-burning, the middle one tepid,
the last as cold as February.

Serge worked the rasp but not the tongue, and even the tool had
slowed down to a whisper. Silent Amar and Silent Serge made pizzas
and kabob sandwiches and pencil marks that added up later to 157
lunches.

When the girl came in at three o’clock, Amar raised his hand
for No. 158, but when he looked at her, the pencil stalled. He tensed
his right arm and its extra gristle of muscle, the only compensation
for the wreck on the other side. The girl’s purple hair had
been swept into a storm of cowlicks, and Amar counted at least seven
places where metal rings pierced the flesh of her face: lips twice,
nose twice, eyebrow twice, cheek just once. She stood straight before
him, not hunched, not weighed down by the misshapen hump of her
back that she covered but did not seem to hide with a coarse, gray
linen shirt. She must have been eighteen or nineteen, maybe just
nipping into her twenties.

“Sir,” she said, the words dropping like oil in search
of vinegar, “I’d like to apply for the job.”

As the girl filled out the application form, Serge rasped in his
ear: “It’s a trick. She’s one of them. Can’t
you see? She has a bomb strapped to her back. She smells like hate.
She looks like disaster.”

Silent Amar looked at the mound of extra flesh, not the girl. A
back that broken could not be cruel, could not explode into shrapnel.
When she was done, he looked at the form without looking at it.

He said, “You start tomorrow, Sylvia, 8:00 A.M.”

Serge made the scalding noise of steam, but Amar, his groin flushed
with blood, did not allow his ears to listen.

Yesterday Amar ate a plate of spaghetti buried under a frost of
Parmesan cheese, a crust of bread, two eggs that had been boiled
until their shells burst, and the pulpy juice of a fruit cocktail,
which he slurped from the aluminum can.

Serge, his arms tied with knots of straining blue veins, worked
the rasp so slowly it appeared to Amar as if the restaurant, and
not the tool, were moving. Silent Amar blotted the white tile floor
with the sting of bleach, cut onions until he was dry of tears,
and stole watery glances out the front windows. His eyes skipped
over the midnight punks shrinking in daylight and the old men in
synthetic ballcaps, and finally, five minutes to eight, Sylvia pushed
open the door.

All day long Amar taught her (and watched): how to fix the meat
so it jumped onto the skewers (how the cords of tendon made her
fingers dance), how to make the skin of the pizza bubble up like
a blessing (how the heat speckled her tan eyes with black), how
to stopper one’s ears against Serge’s complaints (how
her shoulders surrendered normalcy as they became a back, which
became a lump, which became a mystery).

Yesterday Amar ate three clumps of broccoli, the larger wing of
a lopsided turkey, three slices of bologna, and a bag of Fritos
Benji had crushed into cornmeal.

No Serge at all, and Amar, his left arm supplying more pain than
effort, worked the rasp to grind the graffitied slur out of the
day. Amar’s hands knew what to do: mop the morning grime away,
pick the tomatoes that were fat with juice, cut pita into calm triangles.

He saw that Sylvia had a way with crust, so it came out of the oven
light and crisp and brown on the bottom, unless the customer wanted
it burned, and then she knew when the pizza was just on the right
side of ashes. She wore the same linen shirt from the day before
and the day before that, but even with his face almost buried in
that purple hair, Amar could get no sense of her scent. She worked,
and he worked, and he liked it, and she scrubbed the long black
counter with care and effort, without a drop of griping or a sigh
of perspiration.

At the end of the day, the ticks of the pencil added up to 223 customers,
and Amar smiled back at the gleaming white tile floor, the bare
brick walls that looked a little stronger than they had the day
before. They didn’t need Serge to prop them up.

Yesterday Amar ate an eclair Benji had drained of cream, two pancakes
toughened by the griddle and softened by syrup, a half grapefruit
seeded with sugar, and a dollop of blueberry yogurt on the eve of
its expiration date.

Yesterday Amar ate seventeen peanuts, a confetti of iceberg lettuce
tossed with purple cabbage, four slices of chicken congealed in
yellow gravy, and three oranges wrenched out of their peels.

After lunch, 263 ticks of the pencil, Silent Amar opened his mouth
and let things come out, things about Benji: his wispy black hair
and his soft unwrinkled walnut skin and his sixty-seven-word vocabulary.
How Benji’s laugh turned into a peppermint smile. How Benji
spent his days at Mrs. Steiner’s while Amar worked. How at
night Amar took Benji home and made him dinner and cleaned his corduroys
and played imaginary games with a child’s rules, flexible
and fantastic, as if every event would turn out OK as long as Benji
had a little more time to think.

Yesterday Amar ate two waffles steeped in chocolate sauce, five
stalks of celery, the hard edge of a wheel of cheddar, and three
biscuits that had become brittle with age.

Yesterday Amar ate three-quarters of a honey-graham granola bar,
eleven french fries sodden with ketchup, two quarters of a mandarin
orange, and a banana Benji had abandoned to bruises.

All kinds of customers––old women in cold war babushkas,
snot-fingered punks, young couples with delicate vegetarian wishes,
even skinheads with downturned eyes and money to spend––
seemed drawn to Sylvia. Amar thought of this and counted 313 strokes
of his pencil.

Yesterday Amar ate a piece of chocolate cake stripped of its shell
of icing, three half-nibbled hot dogs, a plate of yams mashed by
a tiny fork, the touch of Sylvia’s hand on his wrist, and
innumerable kernels of corn sliced from the cob.

Yesterday Amar ate two blueberry bars, the core of an apple, seven
potato puffs, a can of green beans left to simmer too long, the
meat picked out of nine chestnuts, and a cupcake fringed with purple
icing.

Yesterday Amar ate six beets stewed in their own broth, seventeen
cashews, two wings from a scrawny fried chicken, and the unequal
half of a Reese’s peanut butter cup.

First he went down alone, and he and the rasp scraped away the swastika
mess from the night before. Then he went back to Mrs. Steiner’s,
and he took Benji’s muffiny hand in his, and together they
walked a slow, crooked line down to the restaurant. Amar wearing
worn leather shoes resurrected with polish. Benji scrubbed and rinsed
and rescrubbed because Sylvia wanted to meet him.

“I had heard so much about you,” she said, “that
I expected you to be bigger.”

Benji hid his face behind cracks of fingers.

The work of pizzas and kabobs chased Sylvia and Amar behind the
counter, and it drove Benji into the realm of strangers. Amar watched
as they flitted fingers through his hair and tickled his strong,
fat belly and made him fold his hand into gentle waves when they
said good-bye. One eye on pizzas and one eye on Benji and one eye
on Sylvia, except Amar did not have enough eyes for this. At the
end of it all, Benji, sitting on the counter, shook his bottle of
root beer and took long fizzy sips, and Amar counted up 373 marks
made with the nub of his pencil.

“Amar,” Sylvia called from the storage room, and for
a minute, the softness of her voice made him think she could not
mean him.

He parted the canvas curtain, and she stood in a halo of fluorescence.
The room, crowded with half-gallon cans of stewed tomatoes, was
so small that he stood under the light too, almost stole it from
her.

She looked at him as she started to pull the jewelry out of her
nose and her lips. The seven rings clinked one by one into his hand
as if they were a debt paid with coins. He peered into the holes
she had made in her own flesh. She showed him her teeth, and he
wrapped his arms around her. The hump of her back seemed alive under
her linen shirt. It fluttered with delicate muscularity.

She said, “Do you feel them, the wings?”

He said, “What?”

“The wings. I bind them up.”

The blood left his pants for his face, and he felt too hot to be
trapped under this light.

He turned, and she said, “Wait,” but he didn’t
spin back to her. He split the dingy curtain open with his body.

One of the skinheads, all dusty gray eyes and shit-black tattoos,
held a blushing-red apple out to Benji. No thoughts, just steps.
In two steps, Amar had the apple in one hand and Benji’s wrist
in the other, his son’s arm all bird bones and skin, no fat,
no protection.

“Get out, get out, get out, get out.”

He said, “You get out, too, Sylvia. Get out. Don’t come
back. Just get out. Get out.”

He folded his son in his arms, and he tucked his sight behind eyelids.
Fuck her with her purple witch hair and her angel talk. It was a
trick, a cruel distraction. They were going to kidnap his son, carve
him up, spit him out.

When all else fails, you can go home, Amar thought, so he did, dragging
Benji halfway and carrying him the rest. He cooked macaroni and
cheese with those little sausages for Benji, Amar’s silent
mouth cheating his son out of every fourth bite.

Benji said, “I make you a tiger,” and Amar, though too
tired to be a tiger, let him draw thin lines of night across his
face with the ticklish felt of a Magic Marker.

They had killed thousands and thousands of Germans in Dresden, and
it wasn’t enough. They couldn’t have killed eight more?
Just the grandparents of the gray-eyed punk and the grandparents
of Sylvia? Just one more bomb flipping out of an Allied plane, a
Rorschach of blood, and Amar’s present would have been preserved
by the past.

Instead, the future cursed at him, and Amar tightened his belt to
its last notch, put his son to bed. He had his son, and he had nothing
else, except maybe, way back in the closet, he still had the old
stolen pistol.

Amar’s father had said to him, “When they treat you
like something the rats shouldn’t even touch with their whiskers,
the best thing, the only thing, is to have a way to kill them.”

Perhaps, Amar thought, in this way and with that speech, the pistol
had been given from father to son and so on, a redundancy of potential
violence, since the time of Amar’s great-grandfather, but
when it came to Amar, it was no longer a gift. His father had become
a croaking bundle of thorns in a bag of leather, and Amar had taken
the pistol, three identical tan shirts, a ruined arm, one pair of
checkered pants, the equivalent of ninety-three marks, and a pair
of boots mended with copper wire, and he had climbed up into an
airplane for the first time and pierced the sky and left only the
past for his father. Way back then, he didn’t think this would
be the future.

Amar covered the pistol’s threat with the sheen of a garbage
bag and went across the hall. He would ask Mrs. Steiner, all iron
skin and insomnia, to please come over. Mrs. Steiner, will you look
after Benji? I have to go kill someone. I won’t be gone long.
Then he said it, omitting only the middle sentence.

The night welcomed him. Everything dark, except a fingernail clipping
of moon. Amar knew these streets from the days of the lunch cart.
He could hunt in them. He would start at the restaurant, maybe lie
in wait.

As he walked through the splinted streets, Amar saw nothing except
his father’s voice, black and thick and smelling of diseased
teeth. His father’s curdled voice saying, “Despise the
things that starve you.” A sentence to surrender to. Amar
lifted his arms, and a whiff of his own rotting turnip flesh hit
his nose. Then the pistol seemed to fly from father to son to son
to son to the dumpster behind Amar’s store, as if stopping
the path of heredity required just a flick of the wrist and the
Germanic urge to keep the streets clean.

Cleanliness. Amar wanted this too, and he drifted into his restaurant
to scrub the day out of it. The skinheads had not yet left their
mark on the bricks, and Amar needed some similar unblemished space
in his head. He had black Magic Marker lines drawn onto his face
by his son, and he didn’t care. This was the best kind of
nihilism.

It was a luxurious lie to think she was an angel instead of some
fucked-up Dresden girl with a heroin brain and a perforated face
and a mound of pulsating flesh where her back should have ended.
So much was just a fucked-up mass of impossible fantasies: revenge-soaked
dreams and angelic sex, magical futures and heavenly something or
other.

The real was the crowd right outside his restaurant: three raccoon-faced
punks trimmed in black, seven-elevenths of a grass-stained football
team, an old man tottering on drunken legs. This scrum of clumsy
humanity pressed whiskey-dyed noses against his lighted windows
and looked in at him. It took him a moment to realize they thought
he was going to open for business.

He would, he decided. He would feed all the empty-bellied drunks
wandering through the Dresden night. First, though, they could wait
for him, and he cut thick slices of lamb right into the palm of
his hand. When he raised the meaty fist to his mouth, sustenance
tasted like defiance. Dresden felt paved with sympathetic wounds.

Work that appears on the KR web site is from The
Kenyon Review
and all applicable copyright restrictions apply.

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