|PENALTY IN INJURY TIME
Emil was kicking the ball against the rusty metal fence that shielded the school windows. He was a short, lean kid with a cherubic face and clever eyes that constantly searched for trouble. This he had inherited from his grandfather, Simeon, the one who had been eaten alive by the vultures. From the old man he had also received the sixth finger on his right hand.
In those days, all the roses that had once laid a crimson bed around the town of Altai had been buried under the asphalt and the diesel smoke. Progress had finally settled in after the last coup. With the arrival of the communists, the gypsies had been shoved into a shrinking slum, and only the old-timers remembered the fortunetellers who had once been as abundant as the vultures in the sky. New days of order and advancement had arrived. Even the street kids were forced to attend school, six long days each week, from dark to dark. Saturdays were half-days, but sixth-graders like Emil received the short end of the stick. Grades one through seven had classes in the afternoon.
By four oclock, the sharp autumn sun had set and the air carried the melancholy scent of burned leaves. It reminded Emil of how much he detested the impending winter. Half of the weekend had melted away before it even started. His feet touched the ball with the finesse of an artist, a knee-tuck here, a back-heel there, showing off to his friend Milan and philosophizing with his mouth full of cheese pastry: "Shaking the rabbits for loose coins is not extracting chemical equations, bastard. Its simple. Fear alone doesnt buy respect. Patience and surprise take you places. Confusion! A head-butt, a shove in the ribs, make them feel like theyll lose a tooth. Bite off an ear. The next day you smile, pat them on the shoulder, kiss them on the cheek in the manner of our great leaders. Show them a little respect. Throws them off, bastard."
Milan took note of the advice. He was a year older but held a special respect for Emil, who possessed a disturbing faculty to mix physical violence with intellectual gymnastics. Milan also enjoyed the tickle of being friends with a boy descending from such a lineage of despots and scoundrels. Even babies knew the legends of Emils great-grandfather, the iron-fisted mayor Vartolomei, who had chiseled Altai into a real town, right out of the refuse of Gods effort.
"Wanna grab a smoke?" Milan asked.
The ashen dusk slowly faded into night, blue and smelling of fried bread. Emil looked about. School children poured out of the four-story building, teachers filed out in batches. They returned his gaze with practiced suspicion.
"My dad is picking me up," he said.
His eyes fell on someone and flickered with predatory instinct. He waved. A peanut of a boy drew near with an air of deep alarm. His sweat pants were stained with dried mud, holes gaped at his knees.
"Greetings and salutations, baby-goat!" Emil said officially.
"Hi, Emil," the kid mumbled.
"Everything alright, Pepi? You smell spooked."
"Wheres my tip?"
Pepis eyes welled up with the wrath of impotence. He reached in his sweats and pulled out a small banknote. Emil took it and twisted Pepis arm in a painful lock. The boy squirmed.
"If I hear you ratting me out to the principal again," Emil whispered with a smile, "Ill rape your tight butt-hole."
He released the boy, who bolted away chased by loud laughter.
"Im going to tell Dad, filthy Turk!" Pepi squealed.
Emils smile disappeared, his teeth flashed. He grabbed a pebble and flung it at Pepi. It split the air by the boys head, missing by a whisper.
"Whats he calling me a Turk for? It doesnt make any sense," he complained.
"Your dads late," Milan said between fancy ball moves.
Emil spat on the asphalt.
"Hes coming. Hes dragging me to an operetta."
"Are you kidding? And the game?"
"Were about to lose anyway."
"What are you talking about, lose!" Milan snapped.
"Dont start hoping, bastard! Well jinx it."
Milan cackled and shoved a dried fig in his mouth.
"Your problem is youre a pessimist, Ive told you a thousand times. Any national team that has its backbone with players from Altai is going to teach the world a few tricks. Like your great-granddaddy used to say, we should split from this wretched country. Then well show whos who."
"When did you hear my great-granddaddy talk, anyway!" Emil scoffed.
"Enjoy your night of culture!" Milan laughed and marched away at the sight of Comrade Chonkova, the algebra teacher, who approached across the empty school yard.
"What shenanigans is that demon up to?" she asked.
Emil shrugged. She pulled him by the sleeve to focus his attention.
"Your parents are such nice people, intellectuals. They do everything they can to make up for your family tree of reactionaries and villains. You should be extra careful, Emil! Your ancestors burned people alive and sold their daughters to the gypsies, just to get their hands on the rose fields! In our day, only deeds can prove youre worthy of the redemption our government has offered your family. And you mix yourself up with pig shit like this Milan. A half-gipsy and a future criminal! And what are you still doing here with this ball? Youll break a window!"
"My father is picking me up. Were going to an operetta."
"Operetta! How are you going to understand a word theyre singing? You cant sit still for five minutes in class!"
"They dont sing the entire time. Most of the time, they talk. Its an operetta, not an opera."
Something dark glistened in the eyes of Comrade Chonkova, but Emil withstood her stare.
"Dont forget you have an exam on Monday," she said.
He felt a rush of familiarity.
"Comrade Chonkova, are you watching the game?"
For a second, he was taken aback.
"Tonight, in Sevilla," he explained to the only person who didnt know. "Against Spain. The last qualifier for the World Cup."
"Yeah, well beat Spain alright," she sneered and gave a snort.
She threw a last mistrustful glance at him and headed to the tram stop.
The last of the kids were leaving school with their parents. A couple of late teachers laughed as they walked away. Emil stayed behind, hammering the ball against the wall. The distant screeching of tram wheels picked up. Still, the city was calmer than usual. Most people had stayed home, waiting for the game with jars of homemade brandy and pots of lucky shkembe soup, a lethal concoction of tripe, horseradish, vinegar and industrial doses of garlic. It was the perfect potion for making wishes come true.
In the opening minutes of qualifying matches, Emil inevitably would become tenser than a Paganini string. Keeping that in mind, it was not entirely terrible that he would miss the beginning of the match. Destiny beckoned and the stakes had soared up to the heavens. The World Cup offered a chance that would not repeat itself in four endless years. The clarity of this realization sent a chill through his limbs and made his teeth clatter in the unusually warm evening. He kicked the ball harder and faster. His back was soaked with sweat. The plastic digital wrist-watch, won in a game of penalty kicks from a kid who had been abroad, showed seven thirty. It wasnt like his father to be late, but the rusty trams and the crowded buses came and went whenever they pleased, rearranging peoples schedules.
Emil trudged over to the gate and looked up and down the street. He ran through the change in his pocket. It was enough for a phone call, but he decided to wait. Maybe his dad would be so late that they would be forced to go home and he would catch the game from the start. He pulled out a crumpled pack of Rothmans cigarettes and lit the last, cupping the flame in his palm.
By the time it was over, he had figured it out. He opted for walking versus taking the tram. He started the hour-long trek home, chasing the ball against the curb of the sidewalk. His route followed the main boulevards, then veered north against the mountains that wrapped around the city. His great-grandfather Vartolomei had died up there, exiled and half-crazy. The old man had dug a tunnel into the mountain so he could have one last look at the rose fields that covered the valley below.
"If youd see the polluted swamp Altai has become, Grandpa," Emil thought, "youd cut off a head or two."
Along the way, pitch-black streets concealed big, dark houses from the old days, lined with overgrown hedges. He detested the last stretch to his neighborhood. It rubbed against the ancient amphitheater on Malabar Hill, a place that could give the creeps to the devil himself. It had served as a burial ground for centuries, up until the Bolsheviks had taken over. In the old days, people would leave their dead to be stripped clean by the vultures. The birds still circled the turquoise sky, hungry and homeless. There had been times, usually in the years of the innumerable coups, when the vultures had become so fat they could not fly but had to walk about like chickens. Now the sacred mound lay abandoned and invaded by bush like a Mayan temple.
Emil smelled his own breath for courage. Potholes dotted the road. He kicked the ball down the street and ran after it. It thumped off invisible edges before it stopped. He kicked it again. Not a single car ventured by. The street climbed up the hill before it made a sharp turn around the overgrown amphitheater. He sensed the scavengers perched in the tall trees. As he forced his eyes through the blackness, the ball bounced off his foot. It spun off the curb, cut through the brush and thumped down the dark stone rows. A vulture cackled. The guard-dogs in the nearby houses began to grumble. Barks broke out. The dark wall of foliage stared at him.
"Ill pick it up tomorrow," he sniffed. "Nobodys going to take it."
When he would remember that night in later years, he could never decide whether his stomach had started to hurt from the shame of cowardice or from the strange sight of his home with all the lights on. The front gate of the two-story house was wide open. His dog, a vicious mutt who did not allow a human being into the garden, sat dejectedly by the front door, quiet as a kitten. Emils chest filled with dust, his mind wrapped in black thoughts. He marched up the long garden path and climbed the stairs to the front door. Two old women, neighbors, talked in hushed voices in the foyer. When they saw him, they rushed over and pressed him to their bosoms.
"Mamas poor son!" they cried in muted wails.
One of them hurried inside.
"Sylvia!" she called out. "Emil is home."
His mother stepped out. She had aged a full decade in the few hours since he had seen her last. She embraced him.
"Your daddy had a stroke in the tram, Emi," she whispered. "When he was going to pick you up. He passed on."
She made no sense. Dear old mother had gone insane. He thought he heard tears. A cold stone pressed against his chest. He coughed and could kill for a glass of water. A dark shadow ran in front of his eyes, like the black curtain of pain during a root canal he had received a month before. He started to collapse. It took all three women to hold him up and drag him inside.
All the neighbors were there, even the ones who lived up the hill, whom he knew only by look. His father lay in the first-floor living room, looking nothing like the svelte man of sixty who had stormed into the house with a box of fresh baklava that very morning. The body had been laid out on a flimsy folding bed. The dining table had been moved to the foyer by the spiral staircase to the second floor. Half a dozen neighborhood women sat about, gazing at the corpse with their empty eyes like bums around a trash-bin fire.
"You are now the head of the family," declared a storybook baba with her head wrapped in a kerchief.
"The protector of your mother," a shrew added. "Just the two of you now."
Emil felt embarrassed to have to lean and kiss his father in front of this coup of hens. They would never see him cry! The witches were there to collect gossip as much as to support his mother. As always in times when he was embarrassed, his sixth finger had fallen asleep. He felt an urge to chop it off, so he shoved his hand in his pocket.
"Its going to be a sauna tomorrow, they said on TV," Uncle Gosho, the only man present, declared. "When my uncle passed away, light be the soil over him, we had equatorial heat in the middle of autumn. By the time we laid him into the ground, couldnt have been 40 hours, he had already started to smell. Mother still remembers the smell, she says it reminds her of yellow watermelon."
Emil felt sick. He could not tear his eyes from his father. A professor at the National Academy of Medicine and a cardiologist admired throughout the countries of Southeastern Europe; he lookedunder the make-up of deathincapable of a single rational thought.
"He had the most sophisticated mind in this damn joke of a country!" Emils mother declared. "Now he looks dumber than a peasant!"
A few heads wrapped in kerchiefs bobbed up, taking notes. Emil wanted to run away and return after everyone had left and all of this had been forgotten. His stomach filled with dread, tears pushed their way out. He made such an effort to stop them that his pupils started to burn. The witches eyes were on him, their doubts, their scorn. As far as they knew, the poor woman who had given birth to a son like this was doomed if she had to depend on him. Emil glared at them with brimming hate. One by one, they averted their gaze.
"Emil," his mother whispered. "Go to sleep, honey. Ill need your help in the morning."
"Ill wait," he said.
"I have plenty of help now," she insisted.
Relieved, he started to walk out of the room.
"Emil," his mother called. "He never said a bad word to me. Never raised his voice. Your father."
"I know, Mom," Emil said.
He felt out of place in situations like these, where free displays of emotion were acceptable, even encouraged. He was keenly aware of when the world observed him, analyzed him. Putting on a cold façade offered a safe solution, like playing for a draw in a match you need to win. It avoided embarrassment.
As he was climbing the squeaking hardwood steps to his bedroom on the second floor, he heard a bizarre noise. A crowd chanted through what sounded like a box. The voices were intense but muted. Ever since his grandmother had died two years before, his mother and father had moved to the first floor bedroom and had left the entire second floor at his disposal. It was odd to hear sounds from an area of the house that should have been empty.
He opened the door and at first he pulled back. Half a dozen men from the neighborhood had spread over the faded couch and armchairs, watching a soccer game on a black-and-white television set. The World Cup qualifier in Sevilla. Of course. He had forgotten all about it. The men looked at him with guilty eyes. Someone turned the volume down. Emil wavered, but took a seat on the arm of a chair.
"Thats right," someone said. "Watch a little football, son. Itll clear your head of black thoughts."
Someone ruffled his hair. Someone squeezed his hand. A familiar load of anxiety settled in his stomach like a ball of worms. He put aside the thoughts about the death of his father, the burden of having to support his family, the world judging him at every turn. Zero-zero, announced the screen, seven minutes to the end. Hope never dies.
His eyes were glued to the TV. As he watched the ball travel from one goal to the other, he found himself not caring how the game ended. He felt a sudden revulsion for the match, for the entire sport, with its constant hope and rebirth. Who gave a donkeys ass about it, anyway! Even if the chance to go to the World Cup was lost, the new qualifiers would start a few months later. So what if the World Cup comes once every four years. Dad wouldnt be back ever again. Match that exclusivity, FIFA!
The minutes expired in a breath. The referee announced four minutes of injury time.
"Borrowed time," someone joked. The room gave a nervous laugh.
And then, the unthinkable happened. The right wing slipped along the touch line and buzzed a low cross to the top of the penalty box. The young prodigy picked it up and was about to slam a vicious volley whena collective gasp cut across the room and the stadium in faraway Barcelonaa Spanish defender flew in and leveled him. Penalty!
The room exploded. For a moment, they all forgot where they were and what they were there for. Someone slapped the coffee table.
Emil jumped too. On the screen, the camera panned over the enormous crowd of stunned Spaniards. The center-forward placed the ball over the white spot, twelve yards from the goal. The goalie spread his gloved arms. A moth hit the chandelier. A friend of his father from down the street released gas. The ball landed in the middle of the net. The Spanish goalie stared stupidly as the stadium fell into a graveyard hush.
After the initial exultation, the men in the room gazed at the screen in dreamy stupor. In silence, they smashed into one anothers embraces. Their faces glowed with bittersweet triumph.
"This one is for Zhelyo, eh boys? This is for Zhelyo."
They grabbed Emil, one by one and hugged him as tears flowed freely. Someone opened a bottle of homemade grape brandy, a hundred-and-twenty proof. A sip was spilled on the floor for the dead, as custom demands.
Throughout all of this, Emil wanted to scream with joy at the same time as he wanted to punch these gloating, sobbing drunks downing shots of his fathers brandy as he lay dead downstairs. But as fireworks lit the sky outside, he realized that he was unable to feel angry. He snuck into the adjacent room and slipped into bed. He fell instantly into a half-sleep that kept his head in a vise, draining his mind and straining his muscles. He dreamed that he was being eaten alive by the vultures.
He woke up exhausted and feeling dirty as if he had raced his bike uphill all night. People chattered in the garden outside. Relatives had just arrived from the Black Sea, so the dog was tearing its vocal chords out. The first thing Emil remembered was that the country had qualified for the World Cup, the first time in sixteen years. He was about to rush to the mailbox for the morning paper when a massive wave of dread washed over him. A second later, his father re-emerged in his consciousness.
"Emil," his mom called when she saw him descending the stairs. "Can you pull two honeycombs and a jar of the pickled cauliflower from the basement. We should give these people a snack."
She had covered herself in black. It looked depressing and unnecessary, but if she had not donned herself like this she would turn into the target of vicious gossip. An uncle was boiling Turkish coffee on the electric stove. His father lay in the same way he had left him. Four candles burned, glued with melted wax to the frame of the foldable bed in the shape of a cross one above the head, one below the feet and one by each shoulder. In the daylight, Emil recognized the ugly paralysis that had grasped the left side of his fathers face. He sensed the mourners staring at the same detail. He was embarrassed on behalf of his father, and guilty for being embarrassed.
An hour later he was arranging pieces of honeycomb on a plate when a familiar finger-whistle rolled in from outside. It was immediately drowned by the hysterical barking of the dog. Milan waited patently by the garden gate, kicking a ball against the fence and driving the mutt crazy. Emil sucked on his fingers and opened the jar of pickled cauliflower with the help of a towel. His mother peeped in, just as Milan whistled again.
"Its your friend," she said.
"I know," Emil said and waved off a bee.
His mother studied him against the buzz of relatives in the other room.
"Why dont you go out and play some football," she said.
"Hell go home," Emil said. "Ill see him at school."
She stroked his hair with a tenderness she had not shown since he was a little boy.
"Its OK, honey. I have help. Go kick some ball with your friend. We made it to the World Cup, didnt we?"
He remembered his vow not to cry and bit the inside of his cheeks.
"OK," he said and walked past her.
She watched through the mosquito screen on the kitchen window as he crossed the garden path. The dog stopped barking. Milan raised his arms in triumph.
"Did you watch or were you doing sing-along?"
"Lets play!" Emil said.
He headed up the slope to the open field where the neighborhood carried out its wars and dreams with a ball at their feet. Milan followed, ignoring the ferocity in his friends voice.
"Whats going on with the parade in your house?" he asked without receiving a response.
They discovered Pepi, the boy Emil liked to terrorize, kicking around with a girl called Lilly. The kids stopped when they saw the two hoodlums wandering in. Pepi picked up his ball and started to retreat.
"Wait up," Emil ordered. "We need players."
"What do we need them for?" Milan hissed.
"Well go!" Pepi tried to accommodate.
"Take another step and Ill cut your legs off!" Emil snapped.
With bowels gurgling from fear, Pepi and Lilly returned to the field. Emil passed them Milans ball. Without words, the four split into pairs. Milan and Pepi against Emil and Lilly. Two stones set up each goal. The four kids launched themselves into the game. For a few minutes, the ball changed feet and only the panting broke the silence. The temperature had fallen enough for them to see their own breath.
Pepi stole the ball from the girl. Milan pushed him aside and took it. Emil slid across the field and cut Milan with a vicious tackle, swiping the ball away as his friend dove nose-down into a puddle of dried mud. Emil felt his aggression returning, his anger brimming. He walked over Milans body to reach the ball, waited until his puzzled friend stood up, then slipped the ball through Milans legs and scored. He pointed a finger at Milans face.
"Eat pig shit, bastard!" he yelled.
With nothing better to do, Milan slapped Pepi on the head.
"Get back and defend, Maradona! What am I, your set-up guy?"
Pepis eyes welled up. Again, Emil stole the ball from Milans feet, lunged left, lunged right, flipped the ball over his head. He advanced towards the goal when, out of nowhere, Pepi flashed by him, pilfered the ball with a feathery touch and took off. Emil launched himself through the air and, with a last gasp, grabbed Pepis foot. The boy slammed into the ground at full speed. The hit knocked the wind out of him, and he wheezed and waved his arms like a wound-up doll.
Under the rush of adrenaline, Emil jumped over Pepis body and swung his fist, just as he realized the kid was suffocating. Should he smack the little rat? Was it going to kill him? The boy slowly regained his breath and gasped.
"Speak up!" Emil said.
"Penalty!" Pepi hissed.
Emil gazed into the eyes of the little arrogant weasel and ground his teeth. Pepi blinked. Emil studied him and felt a strange sense of power wash over him. It filled up his chest.
"Thats right," he said. "It is a penalty. Fair game."
He grabbed Pepis hand and helped him up. The boy braced himself for the approaching torture. Emil ignored the fear in Pepis eyes. He handed him the ball and took place on goal. As he stood over the goal line, tears streaking down his face, he met the mystified eyes of the young boy.
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Nickolay Todorov was born in Bulgaria, the heart of the violent and mystical Balkans. He lives in Los Angeles, where he writes and produces independent films. His first, Sea of Dreams, is coming to US theatres in September 2006. His short stories have been published in the magazines Two Letters and Hackwriters. His travelogues, product of his obsession with adventure, have been featured in various online magazines in the US, the UK, South America, and forthcoming in India.
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Issue 54: July - August 2006
|f i c t i o n
q u i z
b o o k r e v i e w s
r e g u l ar f e a t u r e s