The following is excerpted from a new story featuring Kostandin Bitri. In this story he's residing in America (either the US or Canada--it's not specified) and seeking to get a short story collection published. Through a series of fortuitous events, he is a guest for the weekend at the rural home of a literary agent. She has just returned home after a series of late meetings and a stressful week at work, and Konstandin finds himself in the position of having to tell her a story about himself at short notice.
excerpt from The Thief
I turned from her and let my gaze drift, listening as she retrieved a DuMaurier from her pack and lit up. The seconds ticked by. She was swinging her left leg, and I was conscious of the chafing of her bare foot as it scuffed the wooden deck. I tried to close my ears to it, to focus on some other sound: the lapping of water, the chatter of the forest, the infrequent swish of traffic. But the chafing seemed to grow louder and blotted out everything else. I grit my teeth, wishing she would stop.
“I met this woman once,” I blurted, to fill the silence. “This was years ago. I was applying for permission to travel to America, or Britain, or Canada. Anywhere in the West. Mexico. Even Brazil, though I didn’t really want to go there because then I’d have to learn Portuguese. I was living in Greece, but my visa had expired so I wasn’t legal anymore. I got a job sweeping the floor in a food shop. The man who hired me paid cash, a lot less than he would have to pay someone with a legal work permit. He let me stay in a room in the back. It was a storage closet. There was a narrow bed that folded away, with a blanket that was full of holes. Next to the bed were the cleaning supplies and the mop and bucket. There were shelves of tools and stuff for making repairs, and piles of other things. Most of it seemed like garbage, but I could tell he was one of those people who never throw anything away. I didn’t like him much, and the place smelled like something rotten, but I needed the work, and because of the applications I needed an address. Part of the deal was that I could put the address of his apartment on the application forms so it would look like I was living there. I swept and cleaned the floors and tidied the shelves and everything, and he brought my mail to me.
“The woman was his wife. I didn’t know this at first. It didn’t even occur to me because she was so much younger than him. He never actually introduced me to her, but one day she told me her name was Marta. She was from Kosovo.
“It was about a month after I started. Up until then it was only me and him in the store. I thought he lived alone. He’d never said anything about being married. But one morning she let herself in and went behind the counter and took out the cash. It was like she’d been doing it every day. She knew exactly where everything was kept.
“She knew I was there too. She called my name and said I should come out so she could see me. I left the back room and went into the store and stood in front of her. I was suddenly ashamed because I hadn’t been to the public bath in a while and everything I had on was dirty, and my hair was greasy. I was sure I smelled.
“I don’t know if she noticed or not. She smiled, and it was a beautiful smile. She had long dark hair and dark eyes and perfect straight teeth. Her complexion was like someone who spends a lot of time in the sun. She was wearing a dress with flowers on it and a flimsy blue sweater across her shoulders. I remember all this like it was yesterday.
“She told me that Mr. Andropolis was busy with something and that she’d be filling in at the store for a while. I probably just shrugged. She asked me a few things about myself: where I was from, how many languages I could speak, did I know my maths. Then some people came into the store and we had to stop talking and go to work.
“It went on like this for a few weeks. We chatted a bit in the mornings while she was setting up. Somewhere along the way she told me her name and where she was from. I found out that she had a brother, Sevi, who was older than her. Then one day she asked if I wanted to learn how to do the cash and operate the register and everything. I’d never discussed this with Mr. Andropolis because it wasn’t part of the deal. I was sort of excited about it, because it would be more interesting than just sweeping up and straightening things, but it was also frightening because what would happen if I made a mistake? She told me it was easy and said not to worry about it. She showed me where everything went and how to write receipts for the special items, the things that people from the neighbourhood made and brought into the store and that Mr. Andropolis sold for them. There were paintings and wooden toys and knitted baby things. She was right. It looked easy. Then she said she had a question and I had to tell her the truth. She took me by the shoulders and made me look straight into her eyes. She asked if she could trust me. I didn’t have to think about it. Hardly anyone had ever talked to me like that before, like I was someone who mattered. I said yes, she could trust me. When the day was done and she emptied the cash register and left to go home, I thought about all the things she’d taught me and I wasn’t worried at all.
“But then I started wondering if Mr. Andropolis had explained to her about our arrangement. I wondered if she knew I wasn’t legal. Mr. Andropolis had brought a few pieces of mail, letters from the embassies and consulates saying they’d received my applications, but after five or six weeks Marta hadn’t brought anything. I didn’t know if I should ask or just let it be. I worried that she might not understand. She might be confused or suspicious if she saw mail coming to her apartment addressed to me. Maybe her husband hadn’t told her what we were doing. Technically it was against the law. What if she decided to turn me in? I went to bed but I couldn’t sleep. I was awake all night with these thoughts going through my head, wondering what she knew and what she didn’t know, wondering what she’d do if she found out I didn’t have legal papers. In the morning I was exhausted. I thought about going away, just leaving and starting all over again somewhere else. But I was trapped. I had put so much work into getting this job and earning enough for the applications fees. I couldn’t just walk away. And, anyway, I had nowhere to go. I had to make a decision and I decided to assume that she knew everything and that there had been no mail.
“A few more weeks went by. Marta came in most days. Sometimes, when we were closing up at night, she asked if I thought I’d be okay on my own if she didn’t come in the next day. I always said yes. And it always went well. People in the neighbourhood were beginning to get used to me being behind the counter. I knew how to help them find what they needed. Sometimes they asked about Mr. Andropolis and I said he was on holiday. Once a grandmother all in black brought me a jar of homemade pickles and said I reminded her of her son who was killed in the war. I said thank you and didn’t ask what war.
“Then one afternoon on one of those days when Marta didn’t come in, a man came into the store and went to the back and started trying to open the cash register. He was tall and had thick black hair and a dark beard. I was filling a shelf with cans of beans and he didn’t see me. I think maybe he thought the store was empty. Anyway, I called out and that startled him. When I got to where he was standing behind the counter he glared at me like something I’d done had made him angry. A lit cigarette was dangling from his lips. I remember thinking how handsome he was but that he would look even more handsome if he smiled. He ignored me, even when I asked if I could help him find something. He kept poking at the register, but he couldn’t figure out how to open it. Finally he turned to me. Open this, he said. Who are you? I asked. What do you want? He didn’t answer. The look in his eyes was like he was sizing me up. I didn’t trust people who looked at me like that. You’re Kostandin, he said finally. And I knew at once who he was. You’re Sevi! I don’t know why, but I was happy. It was like I’d taken a step closer to Marta. He gave a curt nod and didn’t smile. Just open the register, he said. Marta sent me to get the money. I was disappointed that she hadn’t come herself, but I did what he asked, and without saying anything else he took all the bills out of the cash register and stuffed them into his pocket. Then he dropped the cigarette on the floor and stepped on it. He walked away without saying goodbye or thank you, but before leaving he went down the aisle where the liquor was and grabbed two bottles of vodka and took those with him.
“The next day Marta didn’t come in. It was the first time she’d skipped two days in a row. By now I probably knew something was wrong, but I didn’t want to think about it. I got up and opened the store and acted like everything was normal, and I was glad that it was busy. The next day was Sunday and the store was supposed to open mid-morning instead of early. I lay on my cot thinking about Marta and wondering about my applications. I had been taking my wages out of the cash all along and had a little put by, and I was thinking that in a while I’d go to one of the restaurants down the street and have a big breakfast and some strong coffee. I’d sit at my table looking sophisticated wishing that Marta could be there with me. But underneath it all, under all those good thoughts and visions of prosperous days to come, I knew that I was fooling myself. There was something wrong, and even though I didn’t know what it was, I knew that I would not be working at the store for much longer and that I had probably seen Mr. Andropolis for the last time.
“Instead of going to the restaurant I got out my copies of the applications so I could look up the address of the apartment where Marta and Mr. Andropolis lived. I put all my things into a plastic bag and left the store. It was a bright sunny day and there was a light breeze. There was a bus, but I wanted to walk. Later on it would get very hot, but for now it was good for walking. I didn’t hurry and I only understood afterwards that the reason I walked slowly was because I knew that I wasn’t going to like whatever I was about to find out.
“The building was on the edge of the city, out past all the neighbourhoods that I had explored when I first got here. Once I got close I asked directions, and soon I could see the building, a square concrete tower rising up out of the bushes on the side of a hill. There were houses clustered all around it and an old church next to it. It wasn’t actually very high, only six floors, but it was the only apartment building around. After walking so far I was sweaty and felt sticky all over.
“There were some children playing out front, on the little patch of grass next to the concrete walkway, a boy and two little girls. They went quiet and watched me as I went in. Nothing was locked. The glass door opened when I pulled on it. The front lobby was empty and there was nothing on the walls, no signs saying where to go. Now that I was inside I could see that the building was old and not clean. The floor was covered with dust and dirt. I found the elevator but it was broken, so I took the stairs up to the fifth floor.
“I could hear voices as I went up, people talking in the hallways. A couple of young men came down the stairs arguing about a football game. They didn’t even look at me. When I left the stairwell on the fifth floor and went out into the hall what struck me was the smell of food, people cooking breakfast, and I suddenly realized that I was famished. I should have stopped for something to eat along the way. But it was too late for that. I found apartment 512, the one that I’d used as my address on the applications. I listened, but there were no sounds coming from inside. From somewhere I could hear the buzz of a TV or radio, but it seemed far away. The door had a security peep hole. I didn’t know if I should knock. I wanted to talk to Mr. Andropolis. I wanted to see Marta, but I was nervous about having to talk to Sevi.
“I went down the hall to number 514 and knocked. It made a hollow sound and seemed very loud because otherwise it was quiet on the floor. I heard steps and a woman pulled the door open and looked at me. She was older and was wiping her hands with an apron. There was a smear of flour on her cheek. Yes? she said. Do I know you? She seemed in a hurry. I apologized for bothering her and asked if she knew Mr. Andropolis. Yes. He’s in 512. This is 514. She was about to close door but I said, There’s no answer. Well, what do you expect? she said. He’s in the hospital. I tried not to look surprised and asked if she knew his wife Marta. For a moment she seemed confused, and then she said she knew nothing about a wife. I kept looking straight at her. I was feeling uneasy but I felt I had to keep her talking. I said that Mr. Andropolis had some things of mine. Some letters. I was trying to get them back. You want to get in, she said, finishing my sentence for me. Yes, I said. It will only take a minute. I couldn’t tell if she believed me. She looked me up and down, once, then twice. Wait here, she said finally. I’ll call the superintendent.
“She closed the door and I listened to her steps fade as she walked away. I didn’t hear anything else so I wandered back down the hall to 512 to wait.
“I wondered if she was right about Mr. Andropolis being in the hospital. What could have happened? And if Marta was not his wife, who was she?
“It seemed a long while before an overweight man came out of the stairwell and huffed his way down the hall toward where I was sitting on the floor outside apartment 512. When I saw him I stood up and smoothed my clothes. I said, Thank you.
“He was sorting through his keys. I haven’t done anything yet, he said. He didn’t look at me.
“He unlocked the door and we went in. The place looked like it had been hit by a typhoon. Most of the furniture was turned on its side and stuff was all over the floor. Shit, the man said. He pushed me out into the hall. Stay there. He closed the door.
“I waited again and when he came out a few minutes later he said he was going to call the police.
“What is it? I said. “What’s going on?
“He didn’t say anything else. I followed him downstairs to the basement. I couldn’t think of what I should ask and I didn’t know what to do. He was unlocking a door to an apartment when suddenly he went still. He turned and said, What do you know about this? I said, I don’t know anything. I just work at the store. He sent me to get his mail. Something flashed in his eye and he said, So he woke up? Yes, I said, and he wants his mail. My heart was thudding so loud I was sure he could hear it. He gave me a once over like the woman upstairs had done, then went into the apartment and came out with a little stack of envelopes and packages bundled together with an elastic band. This is everything, he said. Are you going to the hospital now? Yes, I said. Then I’ll see you there. I have to talk with him about his rent. I said OK and left.
“When I got outside I ran as fast as I could until I couldn’t see the building anymore. I went into a little park or public garden and sat on a bench near where some children were playing. It took me a minute to get my breath back, but I couldn’t wait. I pulled the elastic band off the bundle and went through the mail. There were some bills and advertisements, bank statements, real letters from real people, about a dozen of those. There were two envelopes for me, but nothing was addressed to Marta, and I wondered again who she could be if she wasn’t his wife. I opened the one from the Mexican consulate first. My travel request had been turned down. I opened the one from the Canadian consulate. Again, I had been denied permission to travel. By now I was crying because I didn’t know what I was going to do. I tried to read the letters, but everything was a blur. I almost threw everything into the garbage can next to the bench, but something stopped me. In the end I put it all into my bag and started walking. I walked and walked and eventually found myself back at the store. I went in and laid on my bed and fell asleep. I slept for the rest of the day and that night and in the morning I opened the store as usual because I couldn’t think of anything else to do.”