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from the March 2017 issue: From the Edges of Europe: New Bulgarian Literature

Tomato

In this short story, Zachary Karabashliev chronicles one widower’s struggle to begin anew in another country.

 

June 11, 2010
My name is Christo Christov Christov and I’m here visiting my daughter. My daughter and son-in-law, that is. Radoslava. That’s her name, not his. They live in America, in the state of California. They got me a visa this spring and brought me here. Anyway.

I’ve started keeping a diary in this notebook—my daughter gave it to me. I’ve been thinking about keeping a diary for a long time, but I never had anything to write in one. Not that I had a diary and was sitting there wondering what to write in it, I didn’t have one, but I’m just saying that even if I had had one, it wouldn’t have changed anything. Whatever I had to say, I always shared it with Elena so I didn’t need to write it down. But Elena’s gone now. That’s why my daughter brought me over to America, because my companion in life, Elena, passed away. It’s been really tough on me, so I’m writing in this notebook now, but it’s really tough on me. I’m not going to talk about my wife herе.

 

*

June 13, 2010
I’m going to try not to write about Elena here, because when I think about her I get really sad, and if someday somebody finds this notebook and reads about what a woman Elena was, he’ll get really sad, too. For Elena. Not for me. As for mewhat about me?my daughter brought me here, supposedly to distract me or some such thing. Not that I would’ve turned her down if she’d invited me, but still, it’s one thing to get invited, and quite another just to have them arrange for your visa in a week and next thing you know you’re in America. But anyway . . . it’s not like I’m complaining or anything.

 

*

June 14
My son-in-law isn’t a bad guy, he just doesn’t understand a damn thing. What I mean is that he doesn’t understand a damn thing in Bulgarian. Not that I understand American, but still, I’m not married to Radoslava. I mean, if Elena hadn’t understood Bulgarian, I would’ve tried to learn a thing or two in whatever language she spoke. After all, she’s my wife, right? But anyway. What I’m trying to say ismy son-in-law doesn’t understand Bulgarian. Last night he came home, he’d gone to the grocery store and gotten this and that, and so I’m helping him put it away, right, and I see he’d bought some tomatoes, hydroponic, of course, not homegrown like back in Bulgarianow that’s what I call a tomato, when you slice one open, dew spills out… but anyway. So, I show it to my son-in-law, I tell him domat, I tell him. He says “tomato.” I tell him domat again. And he says “to-ma-to.” And then my daughter chimes in: “It’s a tomato, Dad. With a T. To-ma-to.” And I say to myself, Christo, old man, you just learned yourself your first American word. But I was too ashamed to say it out loud. Domat, with a “t.” Anyway.

 

*

June 17
I haven’t written in a few days, because my daughter was getting me a soshul. Soshul, soshul . . . I had no idea what this soshul was. She says, we’ve got to get you a soshul. And frankly, I thought they’d be giving me some vaccine or a pacemaker or something. But it turns out it’s a number. A soshul is something like the ID number we’ve got back in Bulgaria, but different. So they gave me a soshul. And the last four numbers of my soshul turned out to be 5447. Very nice. The first car Elena and I bought back in 1975 was a Russian Zhiguli, and the license plate number was BV 5447. A very nice number. A very nice car. Ivory. We were on the waiting list for a Lada, but we decided not to hold out for two more years and took the Zhiguli instead. It’s just like Lada, only an older model. But made by the same Soviet manufacturer. And we didn’t regret it. Elena and the kids and I made lots of memories with that car. We put lots of miles on it, I took them everywhere you can imagine.

 

*

Sunday,
My daughter took me to their church today. It’s sort of like a church and sort of like a gymnasium. Everybody’s all dressed up nice, they say “Hello,” polite folks, no doubt about it. We sit down. The guy up there in front is talking and they’re listening. Then they read their Bibles, get up, sit down, sing, hold hands. In short—good people, no doubt about it. After the service they take me to meet the priest. He isn’t like one of our priests with the tall black hats and shaggy beards, but a young guy in a suit, clean shaved. He looks me straight in the eye and smiles at me, talking to my daughter and nodding. And just as we’re leaving, right, he asks my daughter something, holds out his hand and says in Bulgarian—dovizhdane. With an accent, of course, but it’s still “good-bye,” plain as day. And I shake his hand and of course I know one of his words already, “tomato,” but I’m too ashamed to say it out loud, and I didn’t say it. So as not to make a fool of Radoslava and her husband, if for no other reason. 

 

*

August
I’m keeping a diary because I don’t have anyone to sit down and shoot the breeze with. My daughter is at work all day. My son-in-law comes home and turns on the TV. My granddaughter is glued to the computer. Doing her homework. She sure studies a lot, my granddaughter. Talk about a good kid! Her name is Elena, she’s named after her grandmother. I’ll write about her, too, some other time. But she sure studies a lot. I tell Radoslava, she’s just like your mother, Elenashe was always reading something, learning something, studying something.  

 

*

 

My daughter, Radoslava, works in a chemical laboratory. At the university.

 

*

August 24
My son-in-law and I drove to the store today. So we did our shopping and everything, then we loaded up the trunk and just as we were leaving the parking lot something suddenly started rattling in backrattle-rattle-rattle. My son-in-law stopped, we got out, looked it over, his back bumper had gotten caught on something and was just dangling there. It’s supposedly a new car and all . . . but anyway. My son-in-law starts pacing around, he calls someone on his cell phone, wondering what to do, scratching his head. So I tell him, wait, I say, don’t worry, we’ll fix this in a jiffy. And I go looking around the edges of the parking lot, searching for some baling wire to strap the bumper on—I mean, you could see where it had come loose, it’s not like it’s rocket science or anything . . . So I’m looking here and there for wire, but there isn’t a piece of wire in sight. Dang! I make the rounds of the whole parking lot, I even walk along the nearby highway, too—but there’s no wire to be found. So I start thinking to myself—how is it that in this big whoppin’ America there’s not a single little piece of baling wire? But I keep going, right, I don’t give up, I keep looking. However, at one point I notice that my son-in-law is walking along after me with this worried look. So I tell him—I’m looking for tel. He doesn’t get it. Tel, I’m looking for tel, I say again. And he says: What? That’s another word I already know in English. So I say tel. And I go like this with my hands, as if stretching out a snake: te-e-e-e-l. He still doesn’t get it. I look at him, he takes out his cell phone and makes another call, but I go about my business: I step over the guardrail and start digging through the nearby scrub—you can always find some wire along guardrails. Back home, baling wire’s one thing you’ll never be without. You might want for everything else, but there’s more wire than you can shake a stick at. You can find all kinds of baling wire where I’m from. And I’ve never asked myself where all this wire came from. But it’s always there when you need it. Here there’s no baling wire, not even along the guardrails.

 

*

 

August 25
So, my family comes from Aegean Thrace, what’s now Northern Greece, we’re Thracians. Back in 1914 they moved north near the Bulgarian town of Pazardzhik, and from there to Dobrudzha, in northeastern Bulgaria. But I’ll write about that some other time. But I can’t help thinking . . . that whole business yesterday has left me unsettled—what kind of country is this, with no wire anywhere?

 

*

Today the daughter said Dad . . . she said . . .

 

*

August 26
So . . . I’m thinking I should write more happy stuff here. There’s no use talking about sad stuff, plus I don’t hold on to the bad things. Well, I guess that isn’t exactly true—I remember the bad things, too, but why should I talk about them?

 

August 27
Today they took me downtown. Skyscrapers, cars, noise . . . What made an impression on me was the fact that there are no stray dogs roaming the streets. Of course, there’s plenty of homeless people. They’re sprawled on the sidewalks, twisted up in filthy blankets, on top of flattened cardboard boxes—a sorry scene. There are many street people, but no street dogs. But anyway.

 

*

August 28, afternoon
Back in the day, me and Dragan, this accordion player . . . Back in the day, there was this accordion player, Dragan. But criminy, how he can play! Or how he could play, rather. Dragan has passed on, he died before his time. He . . . now why the heck did I think of Dragan just now? The weather is really muggy today.

 

*

September...
I walked my granddaughter to school, which is eighteen minutes away, first you go up and then turn right at the intersection with the stoplight, you head down two more blocks and you’re there. Like I was saying, I dropped my granddaughter off and on the way back, I kept on going down the street—there are some really peculiar trees here. They’re something like sequoias—they’ve got this really strange bark, grayish, brownish, but smooth like dolphin skin. I’ve only seen a dolphin one time, on the Black Sea, the waves had spit it up right on the shore—maybe it was sick, injured, or old or something—it could hardly move, but it was still alive. But I remember its skin—smooth, soft, grayish. And the bark of those trees reminds me of that dolphin’s skin. And I also thought about Elena. But anyway. 

So I’m walking along, and little by little I reach the upper street. And I see an old lady and an old man—maybe Japanese, maybe Chinese, I don’t know what they are, I can’t tell, but definitely from the Asian race, and they’re coming down the sidewalk toward me, right, and it makes an impression on me—polite people, no doubt about it, they greet me just like that with a nod. And I nod back at them. Not that it’s any big deal, but it makes me feel good that they greet other people. But I’m really missing Elena again. I’m done writing for today.

 

*

September 8
So I gather there’s a canyon beyond the school. Last night it somehow came up and my daughter was saying: “The canyon this, the canyon that.” And of course, I got all interested and started asking her about that canyon, and she snapped at me and started warning me off it—it was too far away, I had no business there and so on. That I’d better not go there and get lost and not be able to find my way home . . . This sort of rubbed me the wrong way, but anyway.

 

*

 

September 12
I dropped off my granddaughter at school and started heading back home. But I didn’t feel like going home—what’s there to do sitting around the house all day? So I started going down that same road, taking my own sweet time. I came across that Japanese couple again, they nodded at me again, I nodded back at them. They were walking slowly, side by side, taking a stroll. What else do those folks have to do but stroll around? They went on their way, I went on mine. And so I headed down the street, walking just like that, with my hands clasped behind my back. Years ago I used to wonder why old people walked like that, slightly stooped over with their hands behind their backs, but look at me now—I catch myself walking with my hands clasped behind my back. And so I’m just strolling along, but I keep my eyes peeled for baling wire. I tell myself—I’ve got to find some wire, there’s got to be baling wire somewhere in this country. A nice, orderly country, or so they say, everything spick-n-span, but you can’t find a single piece of wire on the street. So I’m looking. Wire, wire, wire, any baling wire here, any baling wire there? Nope, no wire. But I’ve gotten it into my head. And when I’ve gotten something into my head, there’s no letting it go, back in the day, Elena would say, Christo, when you get something into your head . . . enough about Elena . . . anyway. So I make it to the canyon. I look at it from up above. So they call this a canyon, huh? If you ask me, it’s just a big ravine. Full of shrubs, low-growing trees, I can even see some kind of beech tree down there, but not like ours, it’s shorter and the leaves are stiff and small. In short—a ravine. OK, so it’s a ravine all right, but of a different sort. Because back home, the country folk throw trash into the ravines. The city folk do, too. To us, a ravine is an eyesore, an ugly business. I remember, back in the day, when they built the new apartment buildings in our town—we called them “the new buildings,” and that’s what we still call them, never mind that thirty years have passed since then—so, like I was saying, they built the new buildings on the other side of the ravine. And the people from the new buildings threw their trash into the ravine. Just like the people from the old buildings. But anyway.

 

*

 

My son-in-law is going on a business trip tomorrow. I gathered that much.

 

*

September 18
I dropped off my granddaughter at school and again followed my usual route, taking my own sweet time, I saw the Chinese folks again, we nodded at each other again and smiled. Looks like we’re about the same age, but there’s two of them, so they’ve got an easier time of it. The neighborhood here has been greened up real nice, I’ve noticed that they water it all night, because if they don’t, everything will burn up.

So then I see a little bird on the neighbors’ fence—it looks a bit like the titmouse we’ve got back in Bulgaria, but different. Gray, with a very smooth, dark, rounded little head and a sharp black beak, but with a white belly and a long tail. I stop about five or six feet away and look at it. And it looks back at me. And at one point it goes: chirp. But its whole body shudders when it says “chirp.” And again: “chirp.” Back where I’m from, birds aren’t quite this friendly somehow. “Chirp, chirp chirp,” watching me from the corner of its eye. “Chirp.” I take a good, hard look around and when I’m sure there’s nobody in sight, I say “chirp” right back to it. It says: “chirp.” I say: “Chirp.” It says: “Chirp, chirp.” Me: “Chirp, chirp.” Then it flutters a little ways off and again goes “chirp.” I followed, “chirp.” It goes “chirp”, flies a little ways off, and I follow after it “chirp.” And with a “chirp, chirp” here and a “chirp, chirp” there, I’ve reached the canyon before I realize it. The bird goes “chirp” one last time and disappears into the canyon.

 So I just stand there and stand there waiting for the bird to come back, I keep saying “chirp” few more times, but the bird doesn’t answer. 

Then I walk along the guardrail until I find a little path and before I know it, voila! I am on my way down into the ravine. I take my own sweet time heading down that steep path, I’m being careful, right, so I don’t trip and fall . . . And, what do I see? Another America. Some dry brush that looks like our hawthorn back home, but it’s not; a little further down a juniper bush, again all dried up, but I know juniper when I see it. Some tall reeds, and when I say tall I’m talking three times taller than me, the wind is rustling through them—sh-sh-sh-sh-sh. The birds are twittering, the flies are buzzing, the air is different, it smells like dust clouds, like a country road. People have left it like that, just like it has been since time immemorial. So I walk down that path, further and further down, I’m breathing harder and harder, it’s like I don’t know where I am anymore—in the country, in the city, in America, or back home.

Just a hundred yards up: highways, houses, sidewalks, cars. Here: wilderness. At one point I reach some willows—they’re willows all right, but again not exactly like ours, they have smaller leaves. Under the willows there’s a little creek, gurgling between the rocks. I wade right into it bold as brass—and keep going down the path. But then it swings back up. I keep following along it, following along until I reach some old train tracks. The scent of the rails hit me, the scent of trains, of Kaspichan. Elena’s sister lived in the town of Kaspichan by the train station and we’d always take the train there to celebrate New Year’s, that’s what made me think of it. I thought I’d heard a train whistle around here a few times, I’d asked my daughter where the train tracks were, but she said I don’t know or care. They’re just freight trains, she said, nobody here takes the train. Why not? I asked her. Why don’t you take the train? Because people here have cars. Yeah, cars with their bumpers hanging off of them, I said, but just to myself, of course, I didn’t say anything like that to her. Anyway. I find the train tracks. I notice that the gravel isn’t like ours, it’s made of gray and reddish pebbles. But bigger than ours. I continue on down the dusty path, it curves up slightly to the north and keeps on going, always parallel to the train tracks.

And then I see one length of chain-link fence and I say to myself—your luck has finally turned around, Christo, old man! I run over there and guess what I see next to one of the stakes in the fence? Baling wire. Rusted, about two or two and a half yards long—exactly as much as I need, with a little extra just in case. This find really makes my day. I take that wire, wind it into a ring and hightail it out of there. And all is well and good until the path forks at one point. Which path should I take, I wonder, which path—OK, how about the one leading to the right and downward? I come across another stand of willows, and then another creek, this time bigger than the one before. I walk a little further along the river and just as I look around, trying to figure out how to splash my way through it, what do I see? A tomato plant. Not too large, not too small, but hale and hearty. A tomato plant. With one tomato on it. A tomato! A real tomato. I can’t begin to describe how happy that makes me. I look around for more—I think maybe I have wandered into somebody’s garden, but no. I haven’t. It’s just that one plant, who knows how it’s ended up here in this wilderness and has taken root, hunkered down and even borne fruit. I sit down to rest and to feast my eyes on the little savage. How did it manage to find a spot in the ravine that is both near to the water yet off the beaten track, and on a southwestern slope to boot? Nature. I tell myself: I ought to dig up this rapscallion here and replant it in my daughter’s back yard among the flowers—she’ll never know the difference—but I wonder if it would take? And then, when my son-in-law gets back from his business trip—tomato.

I guess I hadn’t realized how time had passed and how the day was fading behind the ridge. Maybe I’d worn myself out, maybe the sun had gotten to me, I don’t know, maybe there’d been a solar flare, but here, since I don’t understand what they’re saying on TV, because they don’t speak Bulgarian, I have no idea when there are solar flares or not. Back home the TV would always tell us when there were solar flares, so we wouldn’t wonder why our blood pressure was too high or too low. Anyway.

The next thing I remember I’m standing by a highway. My daughter and son-in-law’s house is just up the hill on the other side of it—I can see the traffic light where I turn right and seven minutes later I’m on their street. But I have to cross this highway. Four or five lanes in one direction, and just as many in the other. And the cars are whizzing past—fyoom, fyoom, fyoom, fyoom, lots of cars, lots of noise. I’m waiting, waiting for the right moment. I tell myself, Christo, old man, you got to fix this mess, you’ve got to get home before your daughter comes back. But that must be what all the cars are thinking, too—of getting home to their daughters. Fyoom, fyoom, fyoom. I take a deep breath, jump over the guardrail and make a run for it. Christ almighty, I don’t rightly know how I make it to the center island. Fyoom, fyoom, fyoom. And the big semis are bellowing—raar, raar, raar, as if trying to blow me clean away. But I’ve already heroically made it to the highway’s center island, so I step over the guardrail and wait—I’ll make it over to the other side, too, I tell myself. I again lose track of how long I’m standing there. Next thing I know I’m hearing sirens and there are two police cars, their lights flashing, meow-meow, they are saying something on their megaphones, one squad car has stopped on one side of the guardrail, the other on the other. The police officers get out, a whole four of them, one is really husky, a black fellow, along with a younger man, another middle-aged but tough policeman with a mean stare, and a womanhas the meanest stare of all. Dang. And they come over to me all careful like, talking to me. The tough one points at my hand and hollers something, he’s barking at mebut I have no idea what he’s saying.

I lift my hand with the baling wire and tell him tel. He starts barking at me again. Tel, I say. What else can I do, since I don’t know the word for tel in English? So I turn to the black fellow, who seems more kindhearted, and say tel. There is a CB buzzing on his shoulder, jabbering something at him. He leans his head down toward it, listening, but keeps his eyes fixed on me.

They send the young officer to close off the lane closest to the guardrail, the lights on the squad cars are still flashing, I notice how the cars around us immediately ease up on the gas, the traffic around us suddenly slows down.

The policewoman steps toward me; she is saying something, too, but it’s no use, I can’t understand. I point toward the hillI want to say that I’m visiting Radoslava, and my granddaughter goes to school and studies so hard, and my son-in-law is on a business trip, and they brought me over here and gave me a soshul, and all because my companion in life Elena . . . but anyway. I want to explain that I found this baling wire down in the ravine, I didn’t steal it, just say the word and I’ll give it back if need be. I hold the wire out to the policewoman, thinking to myself: Geez, all this hullabaloo over a stupid piece of baling wire.

And then I hear: “Dad, Dad!” I look: on the other side of the highway, Radoslava, my daughter Radoslava is waving at me with both hands just like thatwavingnext to her car, which is stopped by the embankment. “Dad!” she yells. My little daughter. And I raise my arms and wave back at her. The policewoman looks at my daughter, looks at me, looks at my daughter again, then at me, looks at the wire in my one hand, then nods at my other hand, pointing and gesturing, as if to say: what’s that you’ve got there?

 Then I lift the root with the red domat high in the air, I lift it triumphantly and yell, so even my daughter across the highway can hear me. “Tomato.” I yell.

“To-ma-to! Tomato.”

 

© Zachary Karabashliev. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Angela Rodel. All rights reserved.

March 2017
From the Edges of Europe: New Bulgarian Literature
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