Open for Business, part 1

Story no. 21. Lord God, I am irregular. Resuming now!


When she went home, she slid headfirst into an old mold, a child’s mannequin. The arms posed rigidly at her sides; the hair sizzled and cracked in poor storage conditions. The lips stiffened around her new words, the names of Berlin streets, even her boyfriend’s name. Those words did not fit here, in this old-new place full of dust.

Her mannequin-arm crooked, frozen around Xhevahire’s, they toured up and down Nënë Tereze’s boulevard. Her cousin had gone to Skopje with Auntie and Grandfather when the family had left, coming back on weekends sometimes, as well as the big holidays and in the summer. Her mold had not gotten quite so dusty and out of order as Ada’s had.

Karl’s family was from Leipzig, so maybe they understood some, she had thought. His mother, Anna Maria, had once been detained by the Stasi for four weeks, an incident of which she never spoke to either of her blonde sons. They were both a little too young, Ada and Karl. Their parents had set a place at their tables for the guest Fear every night for years: they had hesitantly let him sleep at the foot of the bed when he could not be turned out and found themselves awake on the floor at three-forty-six AM when he pushed and shoved until they had lost all proper place for themselves.

Absence is an inheritance; hunger is a gift. Ada spoke German, French, English, and Spanish. She and Karl had met at their university’s Latin club and courted each other with foul jokes from the walls of Pompeii. She hardly spoke of home in all those three years, and she skipped the visit to Grandfather the last summer, when she and Karl backpacked through Italy. Really they stopped at a vineyard outside Florence for three weeks, and every morning Karl got up at six to paint the grapes. Ada did not wake until eight, when the farmer served bread and coffee and rattled a spoon against a jar of chestnut confiture, and she stayed awake long past the sunset, uneasy and hungry in the darkness.

Karl was an architect, and sometimes that made Ada want to kill him. He had gone to Dubai for three months on a travel fellowship. He spoke neutrally about the islands shaped like palm trees and the Hindi workers assembling solar panel after solar panel for four dirham an hour, as if they were only phenomena, like stars exploding or waves rushing over the shore, not things stupid humans had chosen to inflict on the earth. Things were so organized for Karl. If he did not have a reason to be sad, he was happy. If he did have a reason to be sad, he worked at it patiently and silently until it was smoothed away. It did not bother him that both he and Ada were devout.

Xheva had to take Ada into a tailor’s in Vellusha to have a suit she had bought in Paris taken in. It’s so inexpensive here, she said, you’ll see. They had makiatos across the street while the tailor worked. Then they looked for shoes, and Xheva picked out a pair in two-toned leather with kitten heels. Ada admired her cousin’s highlights and lowlights: she looked like a lioness, with amber eyes and a golden mane. Xheva gave her four books that had not been translated yet – one on economics, one on traditional architecture in Tirana, and two novels. Ada thumbed the pages numbly. She had already given up her gifts: five kilograms of Swiss chocolate, a watch for Grandfather, a scarf from her trip to Marrakech in September. She had sunburnt her nose and summoned all the freckles in her body to her cheekbones during that week. Xheva judged her for the watch and the scarf, and her position answering phones at a television station in Berlin, and for never bringing Karl to Pristina. Karl would love Pristina.

Grandfather lived in a house Uncle Flamur had built for him behind the Albi complex alongside the highway that ran south out of the city. It had three floors and was plastered in pink, though the top floor was unfinished inside and the water cut out for all but three hours in the afternoon. Uncle Adnan, Xheva’s father, had disappeared when the war began. Grandfather kept a picture of the three boys next to the flat screen TV positioned in the center of the living room. Ada did not know what Uncle Flamur did for a living. He owned a BMW and often flew to Milan.

“I have something I want to talk to you about,” Xheva said, when they sat in the dusty kitchen, hidden from the sight of the couch where Grandfather sat by a thin partition wall and a curtain. Grandmother had died long before either of them had been born, and Auntie cooked for Grandfather.

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