Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Indiana Jones Would Be So Proud

By UnavoidablyDetained

Max slammed the hammer down on the final nail in the last crate. Maybe he used more force than was strictly necessary but that was only because this represented the most recent in a long line of obnoxious errands his father had sent him on. His father, the Yale professor of archeology, who was too busy to fly all over the world collecting random shit but not too busy, as it turned out, to order his only son to do it.

As Max pushed the crate into its place with all the others, he reviewed the last two years in his head. He’d been to every god-forsaken corner of the globe collecting votive statues from Iran, dirt from Slobodan Milosevic’s grave, and feathers from a dying Bird of Paradise – not a sick Bird of Paradise, a dying one. He’d met the shadiest characters and done a lot of things he wasn’t proud of all to show his father that he was no longer the drunken miscreant he had been.

And Max was under no false notion about the results of this little venture in terms of father-son relations. The Professor, upon learning that his son had completed all the hundreds of impossible tasks set before him, would simply nod his head and inquire why it had taken said son two years.

And, he would continue, it was not as if Max had anything else pressing to do with his time – like attend a university – because he had already failed to complete that.
No, Max mused to himself as his footsteps rattled off the metal walls of the warehouse that represented every effort he had made in the last 24 months, he had very little to look forward to in the way of appreciation for his dedication to this project. But he had to admit, if nothing else, it had been an adventure. Like an Indian Jones level adventure. How many people could say they’d stolen a Ghanaian griot’s lateral incisor? Or bartered their Nikes in Vladivostok for a hank of hair rumored to belong to the witch Baba Yaga? And he’d have that scar from the bar fight over that Etruscan burial mask until the day he died.

As he was shutting the door to the place, feeling an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, there was a sudden and over-powering smell. It hit him like a sack of bricks to the nose and he scrunched his face up to keep his eyes from tearing up more than they already had.


The sickly-sweet smell was unmistakable; Max could feel the hairs in his nose curling. He moved to follow the smell back through the stacks when he noticed, quite suddenly, that there was someone standing in his way.

“I wouldn’t go back there,” she said matter-of-factly, rubbing her hands together as though ridding them of invisible dust. “The place is drenched in petrol,” she informed him.

“What?” Max blurted, bewildered and alarmed. “But-” he wasn’t sure where to start with the improbability of this new development. “But how?” he finally managed, “how did everything get drenched in… petrol?” his lips stumbled over the unfamiliar word.

“Oh, you know, once you get going it is rather hard to stop,” she responded holding up the large, red jug in her hand. Max simply stared, too thrown to feel anything like surprise, alarm, or anger.

“Okay,” he said, trying to compute, “but why?” She smiled brilliantly at him like he was a puppy that had just performed a particularly clever and entertaining trick.

“To burn it to the ground, obviously,” she said flipping her platinum hair over her shoulder.

“I see,” Max said, though he didn’t.

“My name is Margot,” she said, sticking out her hand for him to shake. He accepted it woodenly. “And we should get out of here unless we want to become a flambĂ©.” She said the last with a little twist of her hand like she was a flamenco dancer. Margot grabbed his elbow and steered him outside, carefully keeping them away from the trail of gasoline she poured behind them as they walked. Max was absurdly reminded of Hansel and Gretel and how, lost in the woods, abandoned by their parents, they had decided to take their fate into their own hands.

It was just as she was taking out the matches that Max finally cottoned on.

“Wait!” he shouted though Margot was standing right next to him, “you can’t do that!” he protested indignantly.

“Why not?” she asked.

The obviousness of the question stumped Max. Why not? Why not? There were a million reasons ‘why not’! He’d spent two years in the ass end of the world conning, bartering, and stealing useless crap from everyone you could possibly imagine except, of course, someone you would trust with your luggage. He had put his heart and soul into building this collection for some purpose that the Professor had yet to reveal and she wanted to know why she couldn’t burn it to the ground?

And what was all the secrecy about? Couldn’t he be trusted to know what the ultimate outcome of all his hard work would be? Was it for a museum exhibit? Though what exhibit would have such widely varied things was beyond him. Was there some other, more supernatural reason? Was the Professor experimenting with sympathetic magic again, though all he had managed to conjure in the past was a head cold from standing in the rain all night?

The more he thought about it, the angrier he got - he’d been stock-piling all this crap in hopes of receiving a scrap of recognition for the fact that he was no longer the drunken womanizer who’d dropped out of Ivy League three years ago, from a father who had never said two encouraging words to him. The warehouse was a giant symbol of his relationship with his father – all work, uphill, to no obvious or lasting result – and he was suddenly seized with the undeniable urge to see it all a smoldering pile of ashes.

Max blinked slowly at Margot as the realization dawned that he wanted the whole thing obliterated from the face of the Earth.

“Let me do it,” he said as he gingerly took the matches from her. The match ignited the first time and splashed the scene in a warm light as he dropped it on the gasoline-soaked pavement. As he watched the little trail of accelerant lead the flames back into the warehouse, a serenity he’d never felt before washed over him. The hypnotic nature of the fire that bloomed inside the building as they watched seemed to ease a place in his soul that had been tensed up for years. Since he’d grown old enough – at the age of 12 – to be a disappointment to his father. He was finally and irrevocably at peace. There was only one thing that was still bothering him…

“Why did you want to burn it down?” he asked turning to Margot.

“Because contained in that warehouse was enough black magic to set the world on fire,” she replied, “and your father was going to sell it to the highest bidder.” She said it all straight faced, as though there were things like black magic and people who would pay good money for it. Max waited a couple of beats to try to discern if she was kidding, but after she went so long without even the hint of a smile he had to conclude that she was, in fact, perfectly serious.

“Sounds like something he would do,” he finally said neutrally. “How do you know all this?” he asked, still strangely calm. Max had never been one too quick on the uptake.

“My father was going to help him,” she said, “he’s a professor at Cambridge and a right tosser.”

Max didn’t really know what that meant but he was beginning to get the idea that he and Margot had a lot more in common than just domestic terrorism. Maybe her father had caught her banging someone on his desk, too.
And now that image was burned in his mind.

“Want to get dinner?” she asked after they watched the flames for a couple more minutes. “Arson really works up an appetite.” Max shook his head in order to focus.

“Sure,” he said, offering her his arm, “I’m kinda in the mood for some barbeque.”

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Secret of Room 404

By Andrea S.

3.91 GPA, George Washington University graduate, honours student, personal research assistant to professor of archaeology Allison Brooks, on my way to Greece to participate in an excavation with the know-how behind ground-breaking technology. Been to China on research, Peru on internship, just back from one year in Zimbabwe on Fulbright.

Passing through Budapest briefly to visit Dad before continuing on to Greece. Great weather, great temperature, couldn’t ask for more. Relationship with Dad a bit rocky after the divorce and he moved back to this country. Big age gap, could be my grandfather, but who knows, maybe he’s the wiser for it. Cough, cough. Left Hungary in ’56, a legal alien for 40 years before returning permanently to the home land.

Can’t relate, oh well.

Staying in Astoria Hotel, father’s place is cramped, and I need space. Strange old woman in corridor beckons me over, babushka head scarf et al. I can’t understand so well, but she says something about my life being behind a door. I smirk, sure lady, show me what you got. She leads me to a room, 404, and leaves me there. I smirk again and open the door.


An old man sits huddled over, disappearing into the large leather chair he sits in. His spectacles are inching down his nose as he peers into a vast book with old, delicate pages. Outside the window it’s snowing, Budapest’s streets wrapped in a blanket of white, softly reflecting the glow of the orange street lights. An immense winter coat is hung up on a coat rack beside the chair, along with a Bogart style hat from my childhood.

I notice for the first time the lines and wrinkles on my father’s face, marking him with the passage of time. His bent shoulders, his white and balding hair are more pronounced now than I had remembered.

There’s a quiet softness about the scene of my father in his big chair and the snow swirling outside the window that moves me. The winter coat and snow are novel, for I’ve only ever been to Hungary in the summers, and they create a new and mysterious country.


BANG! The door shuts in my face. I panic, try to force back open the door. Old woman is back, holding her hands out, demanding. Fumbling in my pockets, I produce forints. She’s unimpressed, I produce all my change. She leaves.

My head is racing. Dazed, close my eyes, retrieve image, snow swirling, swirling, but landing gently on the ground. Aware of my breath and I bring myself slowly back into room 404.

I can see my father, the snow, the winter coat, the big leather chair, and antique book. I stay there for a long time, clinging on to this image until finally the noises of the hotel, some footsteps down the hall, a slamming door, the thud of a suitcase being placed down, return me to the present.

I look down and become aware of what’s in my hand. The acceptance letter to the Greek excavation, which I was going to wave nonchalantly in front of my father that evening at dinner. I realize that this gesture was in essence a plea for attention, for acceptance, for love. My non-stop world traveling research projects and internships have been one non-stop attempt to receive recognition from someone I hardly know and who will soon fade away.

That night at dinner, I am not preoccupied by my various projects. I study my father’s face, listen to his words, don’t judge him for them, and really taste my dinner. The next day I will fly to Greece. At the end of the evening, when I say goodbye to my father, I am filled with that same panic I felt when the door slammed shut, but I reluctantly wave goodbye.

The next day my father calls me to ask whether I arrived safely.

“Yes, but I’ll need to get a winter coat,” I reply.

“Winter coat? In Greece?” He is astonished.

“No, in Budapest.”

“You’re still here?”

“Yes, I am.” I pause and look around myself. I’m standing in front of Parliament by the side of the Danube while the summer sun dances over the water. “I decided to stay. I want to see what the winter’s like.”

“Hmph,” replies my father, the noise he makes in response to all news, whether good or bad. He starts and stops several times. Finally he says, “well, if you’re staying, you will need a winter coat.”

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Music and Lies by MJRiver

You watch him move back and forth on the stage, his voice powerful and mighty. You watch the people in the crown raise their hands, shouting in agreement with the man on stage, but you feel sick to your stomach. You don’t want to be here, don’t want to be looking at this man. You don’t want to be hear the words he’s saying or hear his voice in your ears. You are forced to be here, forced to look at this man and his glory, because even you can’t deny that this man is glorious.

“Brother and Sisters!” He shouts, “I want you to raise your hands to God and speak of his power, praise his power. Brothers and Sisters! I want you to accept his power!” His voice booms and you see people jumping and shaking and some have even fainted.

He wipes the sweat from his forehead with the white embroidered handkerchief that your mother made for him, moved by his words. You look around at the people again, some sitting and some still standing, all with their hands raised. You assume they are feeling the spirit, you’re assuming God or Jesus or whomever is filling them with love of the Lord. You wish you could feel that love. You look at both your parents, standing next to you, the three of you off to the side of the stage. The look on your mother’s face looks as if she is about to cry and your father as a look of complete and utter self-satisfaction.

“He is amazing.” You hear your mother say.

“The Lord is in him.” Your father adds, and you see that neither of them have taken their eyes off of him. You wish you could. You wish you could tear your eyes away from him, but you are transfixed by him, almost mesmerized. He looks off to the side, addressing the audience closest to you and your eyes meet and it is all that you can do not to run. You look away from him as fast as you can. You’re sure that if you continue to look, of your eyes meet again, everyone will know. You’re convinced that everyone will be able to see it written all over you.

You try very hard not to be by yourself when he is around. There is always something to be done and you are always doing something for your parents. Even with all the tricks of avoidance that you’ve learned, he still finds ways to corner you, lure you, entice you away from the adults you’ve surrounded yourself with. You manage to refuse him, get out of being around him for too long. But every so often he trips you up and you find yourself back in the situation that you’ve fought so hard not to be in.

For right now, at this moment, in a small white tent, on some muddy land in the middle of the South, you mask whatever shame and hurt you’re feeling and you look back at the stage when you’re sure he’s not looking in your direction. You pretend that the words he says and the message he puts forth are the man he really is and you push away the memories and the thoughts of the things he’s made you do. You want more than anything to believe that he isn’t the man with the rough hands who’s hot, bourbon tinged breath says things in your ear, things you’re sure you are not supposed to know about. When it’s over, you’re not sure how to feel, your mind tells you to feel disgusted and angry; to run and tell someone, but your heart tells you to keep quiet and still because this man brings money to your family and to your church. Before this man came, you went without food for weeks at a time. When he started to preach and sing people came from far and wide and gave their money. To tell, to tell on him, to reveal this unspoken secret that the two of you share, would take all of that away from your family. You resolve yourself not to tell, you endure and you stay silent. You know the cost of telling is too great; a cost you’re not willing to pay.
Standing next to your parents at the side of the stage looking up the man who tears you apart from the inside out, but with his words builds you up; fills you with the love of a Lord you’re not sure hears you when you silently cry.

You stand still, and hold your breath, hoping that if you hold it long enough you’ll disappear. You hope he will stop looking at you in the way he does, that someone else will get his attention and you can be left alone, left alone to grow up and not have to worry about hands that touch places they were not invited to touch. He walks down the small stairs on the other side of the stage and starts walking into the audience, touching people, healing them with his touch, the love of God coming through his fingers. You see a woman crying so hard she’s incoherent, moved by his hands being laid upon her and you wonder why his hands touching you don’t have the same effect. You find yourself secretly wishing that they did. You wish he could move you and make you cry to the point of unintelligible speech and believe that all the things that he has done to you is all because he loves you and wants you to feel God’s love.

After the spectacle is over, you’re in the small trailer that your father pulls behind the station wagon. You sit at the table, reading, trying to fill your mind with something other than scripture.

“Go take this to the preacher,” your mother says, handing you a plate with a piece of chocolate cake covered in plastic wrap. You look up at her, shocked that she isn’t at least somewhat suspicious about why when you go over there you stay for so long. “Here,” she says again, forcing the plate into your lap. You close your book and take the plate, putting on your jacket and walking out the door. You come to the even smaller trailer set up behind the tent. You can feel your palms getting sweaty; feel the tension rise in you. You take a step closer to the door and try to talk yourself out of running, but you know your mother will ask about the cake. You take a few more steps until you are close enough to knock on the door. He opens it, out of his preacher white shirt and black tie, he looks like the true man that he is. A white undershirt and loose fitting pajama pants. He knew you were coming, changed his clothes to make it easier for himself.

“Come in,” he smiles. You shake your head. “Aw, come on in,” he says, his voice as sweet as sugar.

“My mother wanted to give this to you.” You hold out the plate, your hands shaking. He looks at the cake in the middle of the plate in your hand and smiles.

“I have to give your mother back her other plate from last time, but I have to find it first. Come on and sit while I look for it.”

“You can give it to her after early morning service tomorrow,” you say, hoping he’ll see you as too much trouble and give up and let you go.

“I’ve had it too long, come on. It won’t take but a minute,” he says and steps forward to gently take your arm and pull you inside. You try and put the cake between the two of you, hoping it will keep him at a distance. He reaches above your head to close the door behind you.

“You’re so bunched up. Relax!” he says, going the less than a foot into the small kitchen. You see him looking into the cabinets, but not really looking. “You know what?” you hear him say, “I think I might have left it in the bedroom.”

“Ok,” you manage, “I’ll wait right here.” You see him give a small smile and then disappear for a moment into the small bedroom to retrieve the plate. He comes back out a moment later, plate in hand. He walks up and hands it to you.

“Here you go,” he smiles. You take it, and he puts a hand on your cotton covered shoulder and takes the plate with the cake. He’s moves to the small couch and sits down. Unwrapping the cake and smelling it.

“You want to stay and share the cake with me?” he asks.

“No, I have to get back,” you say, turning around and opening the door.

“A preacher has asked you to share his food with him. The least you can do is stay, at least to be polite,” he says. You wish his words didn’t affect you and you wish you weren’t taught that to leave now would be rude. Your mother would be appalled by you turning down his invitation, and he knows that because he would tell her if you left. You look over your shoulder at him, he’s gotten off the couch and is walking towards you, and you feel his fingers curling around the collar of your jacket, taking it off your back. You have accepted your defeat and you feel his hand stroking your back, the other on your hip. You feel the tears on your cheeks and you close the door.