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The Barcelona Review

Author Bio

imageJosip Novakovich



I had always been proud to be an American, and I felt sorry for those who weren’t Americans. Several years ago, as I watched the starvation in Ethiopia on CNN, I wanted to do something about it. I gave nine hundred bucks to one of those charity deals and then I read in the papers that the CEO got more than four hundred grand a year. I was upset—I was feeding his fat bum, plus paying his diet bills, instead of the people I was trying to feed. And then I read where the money sent to Ethiopia went: the Ethiopian government confiscated most of it to buy artillery from Russia and Slovakia in order to attack Eritrea again. I realized you can’t do charity through an institution­. The red tape is going to tie your hands, your money, and nothing—nothing good, that is—will be done.
            So when the war in Bosnia dragged on, and predictably, international organizations helped it drag on, I grew exasperated. The U.N. created a safe haven of Srebrnica, and then disarmed the Muslims in it, and the Dutch soldiers helped the Serbs enter the disarmed city. Then the Serbs shot 8,000 men (mostly boys) in the soccer fields. And in Sarajevo, the food that was dropped by international aid organizations served mostly to keep people alive so Serbs would have live target practice. Out of contempt for relief organizations, I decided to help alone—privately. Our country is built on private enterprise, that’s why it works. If charity is going to work, it too has to be private initiative­­—an individual helping an individual. I figure, if half the people in the world can’t manage, the other half can help them, one on one, and there won’t be any problems. When you have excess of blood, you donate some, and even your health improves. I believed in such beneficial sacrifice.
            Of course, to be truthful, I’ll say that the American system of tax deductions is the greatest source of philanthropy and big-heartedness in the world. If the tax laws had been written a little differently, we wouldn’t worry about the misery in the world half as much. Nothing wrong with that. It’s the results that matter, not the motives, and our country achieves wonderful results. Sometimes.
            I went to a Bosnian refugee camp, looked around, and when I saw a miserable family—a thin, birdlike man, a woman in a scarf, and a sad-looking fifteen-year-old with big eyes­—I said, I’m going to help them, provided they speak English. I don’t have the time to learn other languages, and if people haven’t learned English by now, in their adulthood, they probably won’t. Only kids and secret agents really learn languages.
            “You guys want to go to America?”
            “That’s my dream. I know it can’t happen,” said the woman.
            “Yes, because it’s far from all this,” said the man and pointed at his surroundings.
            “Yes, because of the NBA,” said the kid. “My name is Toni, like Toni Kukoc.”
            They all looked intelligent, or that’s the impression that their bulging eyes created since they reflected so much light. I had the impression their lights were all there, literally. I asked them what they did that they could speak English. The man said he was a chemical engineer. The woman was a high school teacher of sociology and geography. That struck me as funny—I mean, who’d want to study sociology and geography at high school, and then what good did it do? Is that what these people did—study sociology at high school? No wonder they went to war. And why would you want to study geography if you don’t have enough money to travel? It’s like studying wine from books without ever drinking anything but Avia and Concho y Toro. (By the way, that’s what I drink. I just can’t see pissing away more than ten bucks per day. Even ten bucks is disastrous, $3,650 a year, plus it’s not tax deductible, and in terms of gross income, you need to make five and a half grand exclusively to afford that).
            My not drinking lavishly actually allowed me to do the charity, which would be fully tax deductible­—my airfare, their airfare, groceries for them, one quarter of my utility bills, since they would occupy roughly a quarter of our house. I could even make money on charity expenses: the expenses could sink me into the lower tax bracket. Yes, with some creativity, I could help this family and it wouldn’t cost me a cent. I won’t go so far as to say that if I were squarely in the middle of a tax bracket so that my charity deductions couldn’t knock me down into a lower one, that I wouldn’t consider this charity at some of my real expense, but I could see the beauty of it all. Rather than give money to the government to bomb away, I could do international goodwill, improve America’s standing as a friendly and generous nation.
            Anyway, the man was a Croat, the woman a Muslim, and the lad considered himself a Bosnian.
            I worked out their papers, and was eager to get them on our rich diet as soon as possible. In Cincinnati, they got exile status, and for a while they’d stay at my house, until they got their feet on the ground. My wife May was all excited about helping them, and so was my daughter, Tina, who was sixteen. Our two older kids had already gone to college; one was finishing up at OU in Business Administration, and the other was trying to become a professional baseball player, now as a member of a farm team in Birmingham, Alabama. Anyhow, the two sons gone from our house made the house too large.
            May and Tina welcomed us at Covington International Airport in Kentucky. We stopped by at Starbucks, and I got them Venti cappuccinos.
            “So big?” commented Selma.
            “Is that coffee?” Miro asked. “It tastes like hot chocolate and water.”
            As they were hungry, we went to Big Horn steakhouse. Free trips to the salad bar, eat as much as you like. Sixteen-ounce steak.
            “This is beautiful,” Miro said. “How can they just give that much meat?”
            “You better get used to it,” May said. “Everything here is big.”
            In the middle of the meal, Selma gasped. “Blood, I see blood!”
            “Where?” I asked.
            “Right here, in the steak. It’s not cooked!”
            “Oh, yes it is—it’s just medium rare, juicy.”
            “In our country, we can’t do that, we cook it all the way through,” she said. She couldn’t eat afterward and clearly fought down a gag.
            They slept, it seemed, for two days, and when they woke up, I admit, what we did was not the most fun—we took them to our Unitarian Fellowship. The congregation, or rather fellowship, loved hearing about a Bosnian family. For a while, all of us were invited to dinners, to several prosperous homes of doctors and businessmen. But that lasted only about a month until the novelty of charity wore off.
            No one in the family drove. “We didn’t need to,” Miro said. “In Sarajevo, you could walk everywhere or take a tram.”
            “Oh, we loved to walk,” Selma explained. “Every night, half the city would be in the streets, walking back and forth, drinking coffee, chatting with friends in Bascarsija. You know, the old town that looks like a bit of Istanbul.”
            They seemed to consider this a mark of high culture–not to be able to drive because they came from such a fine cosmopolitan city, unlike faceless American suburbia. The consequence of this was that my wife and I gave them rides to Kroger’s for their groceries, and then to the symphony hall to listen to Bruckner—they were amazed that I had no interest in the symphony. Actually, I enjoy something great, like Beethoven symphonies, but Bruckner? I don’t have the time. Then, when I still worked as an accountant and had just begun to study the possibility of day trading, I worked seventy hours a week, and after seventy hours of high concentration, give me Mozart, something to relax me, something that’s harmonious, not something that sounds like a thousand cats in heat—spayed cats in heat, spayed just a few days too late. Maybe I could have gotten into Bruckner if I didn’t spend so much time driving them around. Maybe I would have even read Musil, Mann ohne Eigenschaften. That’s what Miro read.
            Plus, Toni needed to go to basketball practice. He got onto the high school team and wanted me to arrange for him to talk to UC Bearcats coach Huggins. “I don’t know the guy,” I said. “All I know is he’s a horrible alcoholic and workaholic, and he abuses his team so much that they always start the season ranked number one but by the end of the season can barely walk—all bandaged up, if not hospitalized. If you are good enough, he’ll learn about you, don’t worry. They got scouts out there.” Yes, he was growing tall, but not the strong kind of tall—lanky, fragile. You feared watching him play that any minute he’d fall and break into pieces. Bearcats, who were known for their tough physical game, would tear him apart.
            At least the boy had ambition, I have to admit that. More than could be said of his father. The only chemical engineering the man did was to smoke five packs a day and stink up the whole house. And the man made pathos-filled faces when he smoked, as though he was considering the fate of the solar system, which would vanish in five billion years. His mustache drooped, his eyebrows rose like his eyes didn’t have enough space, and he looked at me like someone stepping into his dream, trampling on it. I know, I don’t sound generous right now, but I need a valve to complain. Charity may be easy but generosity is hard. I mean, personal generosity. Giving money directly, even to a fat cat CEO, to handle the kind of moodiness in people that probably led to the wars would be much easier, but here I was, committed. I like to finish what I start, so even as my antipathy for the family grew, I thought I’d see them through it all, until they became gainfully employed citizens. But that smoke tested me. Nobody in my family smoked, but everybody in theirs did, even Toni the kid. His mom would shrug, lifting her lighter to the cigarette dangling from his lips. “Better that he do it with us than with gangsters outdoors.”
            “But how will he become a college basketball player if he weakens his lungs?” I said.
            “He’s not weakening anything, he’s only smoking.”
            “No smoking is the rule in this house, as I am allergic to it.”
            “Allergic to smoke? Is there such an allergy?” Selma asked. “You Americans are very inventive when it comes to allergies.” 
            “I just don’t like it, all right? Do I have to explain? And don’t you know about lung cancer?”
            So during the day they would open the window and smoke, and the smoke would climb up through my window, and in the winter, they’d run up our heating bills. I don’t know where they thought the heat came from, that it was like Iceland, or something, just coming up from the earth for free, and I bet it’s not for free there either. At night, they thought I didn’t know they smoked inside.
            “In our country, everybody smokes.” Milo spoke reproachfully, like it was an American shortcoming that we no longer collectively gassed ourselves.
            “What country is it?” I couldn’t abstain from asking. “Or rather, what country was it?”
            They just looked at me pained and soulful. Was Bosnia a country? Yugoslavia? One wasn’t recognized yet and the other had mostly fallen apart. Well, I could sympathize with them there. That’s why I love America; we got this amazing country.  Yes, smart people like that, they deserved better. But then, look at Tesla, he came from that part of the world, landed with a few cents in his pockets, and lit up the globe with his work and energy. And he didn’t smoke, did he? The mysteries of motivation!
            “What can we do when we worry so much? We must smoke,” said the wife, and stretched her arms wide, unmindful of the fact that her shirt wasn’t buttoned on top. She didn’t wear a bra, another mark of European sophistication. I wondered what happened to her religion. She brought her arms back and said, “See, I don’t know what to do with my hands without cigarettes.”
            I was copaying their health insurance, and Caritas was paying the remaining portion of it. I bet these guys figured that if something went wrong with their hearts, bingo, they would get a heart transplant, which, by the way, costs about $195,000, for free, and they could keep smoking until they’d get another heart, lung, kidney. This is the country of replaceable parts. Many exiles come here just for medical reasons; they land in NYC, rush off to a city hospital and say, “Take care of me! You are rich and I am poor, and you owe it to me.” Yes, our medicine is the best, no doubt about it. Of course, people go to Canada and Germany for the same reasons.
            But perhaps they were not thinking about it at all. That was too pedestrian, pragmatic, crude for them. Their thoughts and feelings were subtler. Ordinarily, smoking is a premeditated murder, but this was simply meditational murder. Misapplied eastern mysticism taking place via venomous breath.
            “Yes, what can we do when we have to think about so many things,” said Milo. “We must smoke.” He winked at me.
            Did he see how Selma’s breasts flashed at me? Did he mind? Or was that normal to them? They had probably spent their summers at nudist beaches on the Adriatic. Maybe he’d seen it, and now wanted to relax me—Americans were notoriously uptight when it came to sex, and he tried to relax me with his charming wink.
            There was one thing they liked to do in their worries: talk on the phone. I told them they could do it now and then when the news was bad. But they called up home at least twice a week—Tuzla, Belgrade, Zagreb—and the bill was horrendous.
            (They were actually from Tuzla. Later I found out that Tuzla hardly had any war. They had that explosion in the center that killed seventy people, and a casualty here and there, but basically, the city had stayed out of the war. In other words, they were safer there than they would have been in downtown Cincinnati. I wish I could have helped someone from Srebrnica or Bihac or some other town where people were truly hopeless. But never mind now.)
            “The phone is very expensive,” I said.
            “Oh, is it? I read how you could hook up through the Internet and make free international calls.”
            “I doubt it, my friend. Nothing is for free.”
            “We better look into it. It will benefit you as well,” Milo said.
            “That’s a good idea. Let’s turn on the computer and find out.”
            Milo sat next to me, and I breathed shallow because he reeked of nicotine, old wet nicotine, maybe decades of nicotine coming out of his pores. I don’t think you can get rid of that smell. We went to all sorts of sites. We followed the directions, but it didn’t work, and then there were sites that guaranteed it would work, for forty cents a minute. But at that point, the man had already lost interest. He went down to my basement to use the weight room. He wanted to stay in shape. He’d stand in front of the mirror, sideways, an unlit cigarette on his lips, looking like a French actor, the kind that wears white socks, and scrutinize his biceps.
            After all this, he continued to call freely as though we had transferred to the Internet, but the fact was that it cost 89 cents a minute, and that with a $4.95 month international calling plan.
I bought them a used Nissan so they could get around on their own. May and I taught them how to drive. Selma learned most quickly. After she got the license, she said, “I just wanted to see whether I could do it. I can. But I don’t really want to drive. It’s too dangerous, too expensive, a bad habit, really. I don’t trust myself, and how could I trust others on the road? Someone may fall asleep, or have a stroke and slam straight into my car. All these ninety-nine-year-olds driving terrify me. The road is as dangerous as a low-grade civil war.”
            True, wherever I drove her, she trembled in the backseat—wouldn’t sit in the front, for she’d read it wasn’t safe—and she’d bite her nails. So I was like her driver, driving her even to the mosque, made out of thick concrete, along the highway toward Dayton. (A propos of Dayton, even though the Dayton peace accord had already been implemented, Selma claimed they could not go back yet; they would not be safe.)
            Now that she learned how to drive, she gave me tips from the ­back­. “Why go through yellow lights? Can you cross the double yellow line?”
            I can understand post-traumatic stress syndrome, but this was more like pre-traumatic stress syndrome. If clouds came, she’d sigh. “Oh my God, are these tornado clouds?”
            “I have no idea.”
            “Isn’t this tornado country?”
            “Sure. Tornados, torpedos, tomahawks, we got it all.”
            “But the house is made of wood. In our country, they make them of brick.”
            I didn’t say anything. She’d want us probably to rebuild the house, and make it of stone, so they’d feel safer, like back home. Or maybe this was her version of nostalgia. She dreamed of their beautiful redbrick, red-roof homes. (Like nearly all the Europeans I met, these guys considered everything European superior to anything American, starting from their customs and produce and doorknobs and ending with the soul­—we Americans are superficial and they are deep and passionate. If their countries are so fine, why don’t they use their own money, not ours?)
            I don’t think people that get scared that easy should have wars, that’s just my opinion. Maybe Swedes should have wars, if they are all like Borg and that other guy, the tennis player, Edberg, who don’t get scared under pressure. But Swedes, just as if to spite their potential, don’t participate in wars. Neutral, pacifist. Or Jamaicans should have major wars. They are too relaxed for something like that. I know, these are stereotypes and as such probably all false, but it’s the nervous devils, like these Balkan peoples, who get into wars, simply because they are least suited for them. What you fear is what you get.

They always worried about their relatives, or so they said, but it turned out all the relatives survived. Now, I don’t doubt that a hundred thousand people were killed in the war and a hundred thousand disappeared (many to reappear in the States, Germany, and Saudi Arabia), but the rest of the four million survived, and not only that, but turned out to be profiteers. Many people used the misery of those two hundred thousand as a boon to get international sympathy, green cards, royal treatment all over the world. Maybe the non-victim types schemed to have the war, knew it was coming, could run away in time and show pictures of those who couldn’t. Their economy didn’t work before the war. They couldn’t emigrate. The war comes; half of them emigrate. And their economy back there is even worse than during the war. You know, I am not xenophobic, but I believe in the concept of home. Stay home. Visit briefly. Go home. Don’t attack anyone, don’t invade. When attacked, don’t run away. Very simple rules. The world would be much better off if people followed them.
            I inquired at Proctor and Gamble to get Miro the engineer an interview. When I finally arranged it, Miro was indisposed; he claimed he had food poisoning, and gave me a lecture about how chicken should always be thoroughly cooked, especially if you’re feeding people from another continent who have grown up with a different set of bacteria. When I wanted to reschedule the interview, he said I should postpone it for a year, until his English got better.
            “Isn’t chemistry spoken in the language of formulae?” I said. “You don’t need much English. You can visit with me and see that there are Chinese chemists who speak hardly any English, but they are the movers and shakers in the company anyway because they are geniuses in the language of chemistry.”
            “That may be true, but my chemical engineering is ancient—old socialist backward science. I should read some current chemistry to catch up.”
            I got him the books that were used in chemical engineering at U.C., but those books stayed unopened.
            Instead, Miro went downtown, set up a table to play chess at the Fountain square, and hustled for money. He was good at speed chess­—that just proves the point, that he was smart and had no excuse not to be productive­—so he made some money, but whatever he made he spent at the racetrack, where once a month May took him with Selma. He was not good at betting. He had the theory that the thinnest horses always won. I don’t know why he had that theory; he himself was getting fatter. The American food clearly agreed with him, so much so that he ate all the time. I don’t think he saw himself as exploitative. He thought he was repaying us by his genius; he volunteered to teach Tina how to play chess, and strangely enough, she liked it. Every evening before going to bed, she played a few games with him, and he complimented her on how quickly she was learning. She laughed at many moves. First they played at the kitchen table, but later, on the floor, sprawled sideways, on elbows, like Romans at dinner. I knew of course that Tina was smart, and for a while, May and I thought it was wonderful that she was getting into chess. Chess at seventeen­­—there could be many worse ways to spend evenings. At least that kept her off the phone and out of the bathroom.
            Toni did not like to play chess. “That’s for nerds,” he said. “It makes me too nervous. A basketball player must have good nerves and good posture.” I did not pay much attention to the whole thing. I thought it was a waste of time, except for keeping adolescents out of trouble and retirees from getting strokes. (For retirement, maybe I’d learn how to play the game if it weren’t for online investing. I think trading stocks will do for my synapses. On the other hand, who knows whether there will be a stock market in thirty years? Maybe computers will make it obsolete the way they are making chess simply an antique game, and all the profits will go to IBM and Microsoft.) Anyhow, the little chess tutorials certainly did not compensate for the amount of food our guests ate.
            At first during meals, Miro and Selma, but not Toni, were demure and dainty. They ate little and declined seconds, and kept saying, “Oh, it’s so kind of you. How will we ever be able to repay you?”
            But then, when they thought we were asleep, they’d tiptoe to the refrigerator and raid it—drink a quart of milk in one standing, straight from the carton. They’d eat all the salami, roast beef, and even uncooked Frankfurters. I thought the war had something to do with religion—no true Muslim would have eaten the stuff in the refrigerator, certainly not the ham, but Selma did not pay attention to the subtleties.
            When I saw them eating at the refrigerator, the whole family, she said, “We’re still having jetlag, that’s why we are hungry at four in the morning. That’s almost noon in Bosnia, time for dinner.”
            The first time this happened, I laughed. But I never knew anybody to have jet-lag for more than a month. Even a year later, they’d have their feast at four in the morning, eating by the light of the refrigerator.
            All these matters so far were a prelude for a clash. Since I am not a very subtle guy, I imagined my moods made them uncomfortable as well, and here we were, the donor and the donee, passing through the kitchen with many knives. One of these days we might use them.
            Now, my daughter actually liked them. When Tina got her driver’s license, she drove them wherever they wanted. She was proud of them. I was worried that their son would take up with her. She was only a few months older than he, and I could catch him staring at her. Naturally, as a father, I have trained myself not to look at my daughter’s body, but I am aware of it, in a sort of protective way, and I know it looks good. So I had to make sure that the two would not stay in the house alone.
            But one Monday at breakfast, when we were to eat together­—May’s idea, to have lavish Monday breakfasts to start the week in a good mood—we realized we hadn’t all gathered.
            “Where is Miro?” asked Selma. “Where could he have gone?”
            “He’s still probably asleep,” May said.
            “How would you know?” Selma said.
            I wanted to get breakfast over with fast so I could read and before the market opened at 9:30. I had put thirty thousand dollars in one stock, Zenith, since I’d read they had developed a high-resolution screen for TV, and the stock was supposed to fly that Monday with the licensing approval. Generally, I held no positions over the weekend, but here, this seemed a sure bet. Still, I was nervous, wondering whether the stock would double or triple. I could make a yearly income in an hour! So the last thing I wanted to worry about was Miro’s sleeping habits.
            “He’s an early riser,” Selma insisted. “Where is he?”
            Tina was not there either, but I assumed she was preening in the bathroom. So we ate hash browns, which my wife liked to prepare her way, with sesame oil and anchovies and CFO eggs. While enjoying the taste, I tuned out of the crisis conversation—I enjoy nothing more than orange yolk and crispy hash browns my wife’s way­­.
            “Maybe she took him to a grocery store to buy cigarettes?” May said, when Tina was nowhere to be found. They all wanted me to call the police and to drive Fountain Square to see whether the two were chess hustling together. So I drove, but I did not find them at the Square. I was worried, too, worried enough that I forgot to check my stock until noon. But on the way back, it suddenly occurred to me how naïve I had been. Would the multibillion-dollar industry allow for high-resolution TVs to put them out of business or to put them at a disadvantage? I rushed home, through red lights, and ignored May and Selma. By the time I had logged on, it was too late. Zenith had not gotten approval, and the stock crashed. My thirty thousand had turned into five thousand in a couple of hours.
            In dismay, I sold my whole position. The stock bounced to ten thousand on a rumor that it would get approval after all. I bought back, and the stock fell again just as my wife shouted at me to clear off the lines. So now I had lost more than thirty thousand, and I was so distraught that I couldn’t worry about Tina and Miro. I was so stunned that I couldn’t talk about it to May, and she screamed at me that I was a cold beast not to be out looking for our daughter.
            The whole day passed, and not a word from them.
            Did he kidnap her? Did he want ransom? How much would he want? Bastard, that’s probably what he’s up to, I thought. The gall of it! First he distracts me so I lose money, and then he’ll want money from me.
            We kept calling the police. We waited in trepidation all night, all of us, dreading the phone ringing. What if we got a report that he’d killed her? That they were both dead in a big car crash?
            But there was no call. There was an email from Tina, however. She said, Sorry Mom and Dad, Miro and I fell in love and we could not help it. He’s such a wonderful man, and we have so much in common. Maybe we’ll be back in a month, but maybe not, maybe in a year, who knows? We are incredibly happy, and we love you all. Miro wrote something in Bosnian to his family. Selma was devastated. We all were, except for the boy, who did not seem to care.
            I wish I could go on and say exactly what happened, but this brings us up to date. Where are they? What to do next? Go on the road? Distract myself by investing in Cisco? I have no idea. I am going out of my mind. When this is all over, I swear, no more generosity. Not from me. Well, maybe I’d donate to the military. I have just put 20K into Raytheon. I think considering our love of bombing, the missile producer will triple in value if we get another war…no ifs, only whens. This time, I’d like an honest, old-fashioned war. An invasion of the Balkans would be good. Tony Blair is suggesting it now, during the Kosovo crisis, and I’d say, let’s do it, but not in order to help anybody.
            Everything is evaporating—my family, my money. And it’s early April. Tax time. Both fool and tax time. Only fools pay taxes anyway. Why should I pay any taxes? I have paid more than enough.

© Josip Novakovich 2019

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