THE BLOOD BEARER
by Julian Darragjati
The clarinet bellowed a series of rippling tremolos, then broke into strident bursts before bleeding a woeful, as if unending wail.
Edmond winced. He stood in line before a busy, prepaid beer-and-wine bar, clad in suit and tie, although with his jacket off, and turned irritably toward the bleating at the other end, almost marveling at the player’s ability to hold a single note so long. The guy’s face had deflated, reddening. His eyes were bulging, yet he kept blowing out that note for nearly half a minute. Like an army trumpet, it summoned onto the dance floor a throng of festive well-dressed kin who circled a slender young bride in white and an awkward older groom in black. Several dancers twirled handkerchiefs, or clapped against the beat, while others only flocked to the floor to fling cash at the newlyweds, and over the heads of the musicians. A few bills clung like dead leaves to the bride’s wedding gown and hair and soon they’d speckled the wooden dance floor and the carpeted corner where the band was playing.
The bar stood near a narrow hallway that led to a bright lobby looking like a posh living room, with a gilded fireplace, an out of tune grand piano that some kids clobbered or smacked or hid under. There was a coat closet and narrow wing opposite leading to the bathrooms and the bridal room. The glassy double doors opened onto a parking lot that stretched out toward the scenic parts of Riverwalk along the Detroit River. You could see Canada across the river.
From this angle, you’d never believe the news about Detroit’s decline. There were no board-shut windows here, no fenced factories, no stray dogs in sight.
Edmond ordered his fifth beer, craving it with the same thirst he’d craved his first. With luck, he thought, it would be his last. As he turned, a heavy-built and heavily-cologne cousin smacked his shoulder from behind, and Edmond nearly spilled his drink.
“What did you say?” Edmond shouted back, squinting at him.
“What are you doing after?” The cousin was mid-twenties, the top buttons of his shirt undone, where a large gold necklace shown.
Edmond shrugged. “After this? I’m not so sure.”
“A bunch of us are going out after,” the cousin said and made a sweeping gesture with his arm. He had his jacket off, too, his shirt sleeves rolled to his elbows.
His cologne triggered in Edmond memories of clubbing, of dizzying lights and thunderous bases and of girls in scant outfits doused in lavender and other scents, their behinds grinding against his crotch, his palms on their fluttering hips, his face hot in their hair.
“Clubs, dog. Girls,” the cousin said. “When’s the last time you got laid?”
Edmond filled his mouth with air and exhaled slowly, as if to ease the burden of the same old questions, the same old tone of voice and sneering looks like the eternal rerun of some shitty movie. He let his eyes meander. “Got a lot of work in the morning,” he said.
“Lots of illegals, I get it,” the cousin said, but by now Edmond had slipped away.
He moved up closer to the dance floor, to the swarm of hopping bodies, bobbing breasts, and bare bouncing elbows. Men danced with women, and women with men and women. A massive black camera with its lens in a downward angle weaved through the crowd like a steady watching eye. It followed the bride whose flowing white gown swept the bills behind her, lifting them in the air a moment before letting them fall again to the trampling that flattened them to the floor. He recalled for his own bills in his pant pocket. He dug them out now and held them in his hand as he took a sip, relishing the sight of his kin and all those bills, all those presidents, splayed at their feet. Father had reminded him of what Edmond already knew, the reminder almost an insult, to have some singles handy on him. It would look bad, his father had said, if he didn’t partake in the well-wishing of prosperity for the newlyweds. Mother, too, had reminded him of what he already knew, of just how generous everyone had been at his brother’s wedding. “We picked up from the floor over nearly two thousand,” she’d said, something she still took pride in now two years later.
He took a sip again and shifted his gaze to Elira Gur, one of the few single women there that wasn’t his cousin. She had on a tiny black dress with a loose hem that flapped over thighs so long and fine they set his drunken blood to boiling. She was dancing with his cousin Gasper, a large man with a large belly who’d laid claim to her and wouldn’t let go.
Edmond finished the beer with a fast chug and retreated to the bar for another, the crumpled money still in his hand. He had on him some singles, a five, and a ten. The time had come to part with them. The dance floor was as full as it could get and his clan would get to see how generous he was, too. Not as generous as Gasper, apparently. Gasper had left Elira alone a moment and was holding several sleek twenties in the air, like playing cards. With his other hand, Gasper flicked the bills at the bride until the moneyed hand had only two twenties left. Of these, he licked one with his tongue and pasted that to the bride’s forehead. As for the other, he bent low, reaching under the bride’s gown while she drew away coyly. He inserted the bill into the gauzy white layers, then he strutted back to Elira, inflated by doing what was a rare custom at Albanian weddings. Elira clapped his bravado once or twice before her arms resumed that classic dip and bounce of Albanian wedding dancing. By throwing her arms aside like that she gave the partner a full few of her cleavage, and Gasper, Edmond observed, was ogling it pretty hard. He turned to face the bar.
Another cousin asked him to go clubbing and again Edmond declined and stepped away with his new beer, stopping at the same spot as before. He guzzled this fifth bottle, needing to feel drunker still before he flung his money at the newlyweds or cut in boldly between Gasper and Elira and claimed Elira for himself. All day he’d fasted so as to work the effect of the alcohol faster that way and draw from the recklessness it provided. Now he could feel that effect to the roots of his hair and in the dulled senses that failed to notice his mother coming over to stand next to him. She’d been sitting until then at their family table where Father and Nina currently sat. Their moods had been so bleak he’d had to get away. Mother spoke to him a while, though he heard none of it from the music and turned only when she touched his hand. Her eyes, red-rimmed with tears, stared at his drink.
They were missing him at their family table, his mother shouted in his ear. Nina was missing him. The table, round like the rest though smaller, stood near a mirrored wall on which the closest object reflected was that of Nina, of her long straw-colored ponytail hanging over the pale parallels of her bony shoulders. Nina sat so still, she may as well have been a statue, or one of those pictures maybe of people revealing only their backs in shame.
“You haven’t asked Nina for a dance tonight,” Mother said, taking advantage of a merciful pause in the music, and seeing as Edmond was looking at his brother’s widow.
“I thought I would have a drink first.”
“But you’ve already had so many.”
“Didn’t know you were keeping tab.”
“I think everyone is, Edi, you standing here like this.”
Edmond said nothing. He watched Elira Gur doing what looked like mock belly-dancing for Gasper, just as another song began, while Gasper only ogled her some more. He scanned the room for Gasper’s wife and he found her among a group of women, with a chubby big-eyed baby in her arm, tossing her head back in a roaring laughter, as though at Edmond.
“Go on,” Mother said. “Go over there and ask Nina to dance.”
“There’s no music right now.”
“It will start again soon.”
And soon, too soon it did. He’d welcomed the silence in the music with the relief of an aerophobe landing safely after a turbulent descent. Now off he flew into the clouds again. He turned for solace to the bottle and found there barely spittle left. He drank it dry and held his ground as his mother urged him toward Nina with all the tenderness that she could muster. She stood two feet shorter than he, her gray hair tied into a plain ponytail like Nina’s, her face free of make-up. Her gown was long and black and without flourish, a blunt contrast against the glitter of high-end gowns swirling behind the row of round white tables topped with ample food and drink and two lit candles flanking flowers at the center.
The last time everybody had gathered like this was at Artur’s wedding two years earlier. There were songs about the brother of the groom, complimenting his hospitality and generosity that were actually veiled goading to fling money at the band singing to him. Still, he’d played his part well. Had even exalted in it. He had hopped from table to table, a cigarette tucked behind each ear, and he’d touched the bottom of his beer bottle with the guests’ drinks, or leaned in to take pictures with them, their toasts raised. He’d offered everyone cigarettes, some taking it, others declining with palms pressed gently to their hearts.
“Hajde,” Mother told him now, as he winked into the bottle. “Put the beer away.”
Edmond obeyed. He stepped back and put the bottle on the counter, surprised how fast the bartender’s black-sleeved arm shot forward and whisked it away. He returned to his mother then, his plastered head drooped over the crumpled bills in his hand, his knees tingling and rickety. Something thumped and sizzled in his head as he smoothed out the bills and counted them. Seventeen dollars, enough to add to the scattered pile on the floor and the ones over and under the bridal gown. He folded the ten and put it back in his pant pocket.
“Okay,” he said. “Dancing it is.” And he headed off now toward the dance floor.
Mother smiled after him and soon her smile clouded over as he headed straight for Elira.
The bleating of the clarinet had given away to the yearning of the accordion. The melody was Arabic-flavored, spellbinding as always and feverish in its mad meandering around the base note. It compelled many women, Elira among them, to linger in a half-rotation of the body, hopping a few steps forward while gyrating the shoulder closest to the partner in small synchronized increments, then turning the other way and repeating the exact same steps in the opposite direction, each segment a reflection of the other. The male partners either clapped or stomped or spun their handkerchiefs at the females before them.
To mark his entrance onto the dance floor Edmond flung his seven dollars at the cheerful bride like they were rose petals and watched them floating gently. Momentarily, he forgot any gripe he might have had about the crudeness of the ritual and was about to reach into his pocket for the ten. But the flash of eye-contact with Elira spared him from himself, assured him of his place relative to Gasper and to anyone else with more or less money than he. He had no handkerchief to spin at Elira, but he had hands that he could clap and feet that he could stomp, even if the typical compound beat—one-two, one-two-three, one-two, one-two-three—eluded him. With some help from Elira who edged closer and closer to him, he seized the opportunity to back into Gasper and shove him out of the way.
Two burning black eyes smiled at his brazen cutting-in even as those eyes dipped from the bulky towering Gasper to the thinner, shorter partner. Their eyes were level and they held each other’s gaze a moment, communicating to Edmond all the ways Elira had wrapped her thick blood-laden lips around his cock and the myriad ways she’d do so still. It aroused him, the thought, and he longed to go at it right then and there, with that dress still on her. And what a dress! It was sleeveless, the hem a few inches above the knee and two elongated V’s, the point of one just shy of her navel, the point of the other reaching below the base of her spine and baring more than a hint of her behind. At the very least he had to lean over and shout in her ear, “Of all the women in my life you look the best in black.”
Doubtful Elira heard him, but she smacked him in the head anyway to snap out of it. He caught her drift in the irked way she curled her brow at him, in a way she probably never had with Gasper. He resumed stomping and clapping. It was easier than dancing and he made it easier on himself still by dropping to one knee, looking up at Elira and clapping harder. Elira eased closer to him, nearly touched his clapping hands. She put a hand at her belly, the other she lifted into a half-halo over her head, and began twirling like a belly-dancer. By dropping to his knee as he had, Edmond had made her the center of attention; he had made them both the center of the festive throng. Even the bride and groom linked hands with other dancers, and all formed a chained circle revolving around them.
The band took the cue and left it up to the drummer who seemed prepared for the call to improvisation. The drummer gave Elira enough to go on and Elira gave it all she had. The giving was less in performance than in daring, since in her daring was where her talent really lay. Hopa!and hajde! erupted from all directions when she shivered her hips, whistling and hooting when she shimmered her breasts. The clarinet entered, slowly at first and staccato and she responded to it with staccato swings of her pelvis. The clarinet then beckoned slowly, like the flute of a cobra-charmer, and like a cobra she responded, swaying this way and that, as if being pulled now from one arm, now the other. It went on like this until the clarinet picked up the tempo and she with it. She gave her backside to Edmond now, her arms straight over her head, her fingers spread, her hips shivering at his face.
Edmond was past the point of it being wise to stand up just then. Still clapping on, his eyes searched for his mother. She could always cool him down but she no longer stood where he’d left her—no longer anywhere at all. As he scanned the hall, he saw his father and Gasper heading out toward the lobby together. He noticed Nina with her eyes riveted on him and he caught the eyes of many more to whom he’d given so much to talk about tonight.
The scanning took only a moment, and when he faced Elira again she was bowing to a round of cheers. She turned to Edmond and offered her hands to help him up. Instead of taking them, he fished in his pocket for the ten and in one fluid motion reached under Elira’s dress and tried to clip it to her G-string. Elira retreated crab-like and swung at his head.
Edmond ducked, and slipped away, backed into the dancing circle, expecting the hands of cousins on his back to push him to the center. But there was only a hefty hand on his shoulder, pulling him backward. “Meet me where we parked,” a voice shouted and let go.
Edmond stood there, stunned, as the circle dissolved around him, morphing into superficial motion that cared little if only a moment ago he’d been its focus. Only Elira seemed to care. She touched his elbow and narrowed her caring eyes at him. It steadied him.
“I’ll be right back,” he told her, smiling. Then he veered around her, following his father’s scent that lingered in the air like an ant’s food-scouring trail.
He tracked the scent, threaded through tables and waiters and guests, to the bright lobby where he was stopped by a mob of giggling boys, giddy at having discovered a girl standing in the dark corner of the dark coat closed, just standing there and looking down, they said, unblinking. They begged him to take a look there for himself, as if his silence implied that he did not believe them, but his silence only meant he did not care for their stupid games, and wobbled instead toward the bathrooms. As he entered the men’s, two women emerged from the door next to it, whispering about a woman crying softly in one of the stalls. “We don’t have that old saying for nothing,” one of the women said to the other. “There isn’t a funeral without laughter and no wedding without tears.” Edmond headed to the urinal, the door closing behind him. He unzipped his pants and pressed his forehead to the cold sea-blue tiles over the silver flusher and closed his eyes. An ode to drinking and drunkenness began to thunder on, pulsating muffled and leaden through the wall.
His forehead still felt pressed to the cold tile when he came back out, feeling, too, as if the wall were leaning against him and not he against the wall. There wasn’t a boy in the lobby now baiting phantoms in the coat closet. The music had stopped and he could smell the well-primed ribs on the trays of waiters and on the plates of panting guests. He heard swelling laughter and the clamoring din of voices, harsh against the hushed music. Outside the double doors, three or four male cousins hung about smoking and talking. On the first two parking spaces Gasper’s Escalade was parked, party balloons floating up its side windows. His tongue felt sordid, his stomach churning. If only he could sneak out to the parking lot, see what his father wanted, then go back to Elira and leave this place with her forever.
Cousins and family friends of the couple were standing stopped talking and they widened their circle in invitation to him to join them. Smoke hovered between them. One of them extended a cigarette.
“Why not?” Edmond said and reached for it and brought it expertly to his lips.
“You and Elira.” A goateed cousin smiked. “Must be nice to be a lawyer, to be needed by an illegal ass like hers. No wonder you don’t care anymore for clubs.”
“It’s undocumented ass, you insensitive bum,” another said, shaking his head.
They all laughed, all except Edmond. He puffed on the cigarette and blew out smoke and touched his forehead in a gesture of parting, left them to talking about him, as he knew they always did.
He weaved, smoking, through the rows of cars to where he had parked his father’s Mercedes. He found his father leaning cross-legged onto the trunk, smoking, too, and staring blankly at the night. In the dark, his father’s face appeared sallow, weary and washed out as a mug shot. Despite the haggard look, Edmond thought him all-around larger and more imposing in a somber suit and tie, than in the white chef’s robe he was used to seeing him in.
“What couldn’t wait until we got home?” Edmond asked, although he knew what was coming. Could see it in his old man’s eyes, the crumpled contours of his face.
“Martin Tebuna,” his father said. “People are seeing him around, in the Bronx apparently.” He breathed out the smoke through his nose, in two plums that spiraled before him. “The blood’s still outstanding and maybe he thinks we’ve stopped looking to collect it.”
“To collect it,” Edmond echoed and shook his head. He caught a glimpse of the Ambassador Bridge, the lights of suspenders forming double M’s against the September night. Clouds were drifting over them, although it appeared, in the immediate moment of looking up, as if it were the lights moving relative to clouds, not the way it was supposed to be.
“I know this is difficult for you,” Father said. “But Artur bestowed this cross on us and we must bear it honorably. The debt must be paid in full.”
“Very kind of Artur to mix in shit he shouldn’t have.”
“You didn’t choose your brother, Edi, as I didn’t chose my son. But he was your brother and he was my son. We’re in the blood now, and must do what must be done.”
Edmond looked up, as if for divine help, to spare him from this archaic bullshit. “Who told you where Martin is, anyway? Was it Gasper? Was it somebody else here?”
“Don’t start with all these questions. It doesn’t matter who told me what. What matter is—” Something made his father’s stop and glance up toward the building door.
The look on his face made Edmond turn. It was Elira. Upon seeing Edmond with his father, she whirled back inside.
“I don’t care who you sleep with,” his father said softly. “Must you be so brazen about it? In front of your mother. In front of Nina. In front of the camera, for everyone to see.”
“Okay, okay,” Edmond said, cringing, and then: “Guess I’ll need a gun,” he said.
The word gun, so deliberate and sudden now, stunned his father. The man tried to speak and the words misfired. He gulped. “You have Artur’s,” he said, his voice so thin and whittled down to air, like relatives sounded on the phone calling from Albania. “It’s not registered.”
“It’s not registered. I’m so glad. Wouldn’t want to go to jail, or anything.”
“Keep your voice down, damn it. You won’t go to jail, you hear?”
“I’ll make sure of that,” he said. Even if I have to shoot myself, he thought.
“You can’t say that lightly, Edmond, you understand? You can’t be too careful.”
His father extended him a cigarette as a show of offering comfort, or a remnant of the old gesture of hospitality, so common in the old days. Back in Albania, it had been a solemn duty to offer cigarettes to the guests, or raki brewed from your own grape vines. Today, in this new home, the same habits still persisted, still felt natural, still determined pacts between men, even fathers and sons.
Father snuffed his cigarette on the trunk of his car and let it drop on the pavement. He straightened, ready to go back. “Come,” he said. “And do show some regard for your mother. Dance with Nina once tonight. One dance, just to put their minds at ease.”
“Let me smoke this shit in peace,” Edmond said. “Before I have to come in, too.”
His father nodded and headed inside. Edmond watched him stop to chat a moment with the kushri smoking by the door. He felt tired and sick. He longed for a bed, needed to pee again, or vomit. He took his father’s spot, learning on the Focus and wishing he’d taken from his father at least two more cigarettes. Four would have sufficed to calm him down a bit, maybe let him enjoy the rest of the night. A faint sprinkle touched his cheek. He looked up. There were hardly two stars visible, appearing as if they, too, were moving relative to the clouds. In Albania, he remembered, there had been so many more stars and way brighter, too. It was a wonder to look up at them. Here there were few and all so very dim.
Whatever the plan was, it wasn’t something that his father could pull off. He was certain of that. The mere thought of his father scouting the Bronx, cornering the guy and shooting, almost made Edmond laugh. Sure, he might scout the area and corner the guy, but shoot? No! His father would hesitate too much, allowing the gun to be wrestled from his hand and shot in turn. Then he, Edmond, would have to bury his father the way they’d buried Artur—in Albania, in the clan burial lot. This time he would have to go back, too, and go through all those ghoulish protocols he had wanted to avoid by refusing to join his family for Artur’s second funeral back there. He’d have to face all those bereaved eyes he didn’t want to face the first time, shake the sorry hands he didn’t want to shake, and hear the dreary voices he didn’t want to hear, telling him over and over, “Kjoshi vetë!” May you live yourselves! Was there a more ghastly condolence than that? He didn’t want to be there for all the weeping that Mother and Nina had done for Artur and would do again for his father. He’d be pegged as gutless wherever he went, bringing shame upon his family, held responsible for his own father’s death. It would follow him all his life. He’d marry Nina and father children, but his house would seldom receive guests again. What kind of a life was that? He dragged on the cigarette then let out the smoke. He rubbed his face and eyes. When he opened his eyes again there was Elira in high heels tapping calmly up to him.
“Hey, freak show,” she said. “So you left me dancing by myself to chill out here with all these parked cars. Had no idea cars were better company than I. But guess who was wrong?”
“Motor City, after all, isn’t it?” He’d sounded sourer than he’d meant to.
Elira’s eyes widened. “Why are you so bitter, all of a sudden?”
“Nothing you should worry about, I don’t think.”
“Does it have to do with your mom crying in the bathroom?”
He gut went hollow. “I didn’t know she was crying in the bathroom.”
“Inconsolable, actually. I just came from there. Even tried to talk to her. Let’s just say, it didn’t go so well.”
He flicked the cigarette into the air and watched it dip and crash to the ground in a burst of tiny sparks.
“This must be so hard on her, the last wedding here being your brother’s and all.”
“What the hell are you trying to do, Elira, honestly?”
“Nothing, Edmontosaurus.” He eyes widened again. “Just talking, is all.”
“Why don’t you go back inside, Elira, back to dancing with Gasper?”
“I’ve danced enough with Gasper to last me a lifetime.”
“You certainly could have fooled me.”
“That’s because you’re easily fooled. Besides.” She drew closer to him. “Gasper isn’t my amazing lawyer.”
She pressed into him and he found himself fleeing the warp and weft of familial gloom toward the blithe la-la-land where she lived. If only he could stay there for a while, like Odysseus in Ogygia, but with no longing for home or for Penelope to ruin all the fun for him. Could Elira be like Calypso, the nymph madly in love with him and promising him eternal comfort as reward for being her lover, leaving everything behind? If Elira was Calypso, then who was Penelope, and where was home supposed to be? Edmond had no fucking clue.
Still, he thought it suave to whisper, “Let’s go to Ogygia together. What do you say? To Ogygia, just you and me.”
“Sounds romantic,” Elira said. “But where is Ogy-ga-ga, anyway? In Canada?”
“Yep.” Edmond laughed. “Just over Ambassador Bridge.”
“Win my papers first,” she said. “And we can go anywhere you want.”
“Oh, I will,” he said. And he pulled her closer to him.
About the Author:
Julian Darragjati was born in Albania and moved to the US with his family when he was twelve. His fiction has appeared in Barcelona Review, Harpur Palate, Santa Fe Writers Project Quarterly, and Green Mountains Review, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.