I’m Your Friend
Gerard van Emmerik
It used to be that Igor’s days were filled with busy but bleak activities like school, hockey and geology club.
Shortly before his fifteenth birthday, on his way to one of these activities, he yanked on the handlebars of his bike and ran straight into an SUV. A bang, a thud, and there he was, lying stunned on top of a hot hood.
The driver screamed: “Are you alright?” and tried to pull him off her Hummer. But he didn’t mind it on the hood; he wasn’t dead, but this was good, lying here dazed amidst the gasoline fumes. Only when the ceaseless tugging on his foot became irritating, did he let himself slide to the sidewalk. The seat of his bike was crooked, he had some scrapes, and his left thumb didn’t bend too easily, but that was all.
The woman was crying. And then suddenly she stopped. “Man,” she said, “you’ve got a hard head…” She squinted and smiled at him in the way girls often did.
“I recognize you.” Igor was massaging his thumb. “You’re from the …”
“Right,” she said, “the quiz show. Hey, thanks for watching, handsome.”
She stuffed fifty dollars into his pocket for the inconvenience. Meanwhile, they were being filmed by dozens of cell phones. That evening, he and the quiz-show woman were on all the channels. Star Runs Into Young God.
As a result of this exposure the phone started to ring. A month later his beautiful head adorned the one- and three-pack VegaBurgers. He even sang a song for a TV commercial: Animal Friends. It reached number twenty-eight on the pop charts.
Until, when shooting yet another ad for Vega he couldn’t get the words out, and the woman who was head of promotion asked him if he was on drugs. Instead of a denial, drool came from his mouth. VegaBurgers went looking for a new good-looking boy.
So he had to go back to concentrating on his schoolwork. But as soon as he tried to read, the letters began to move and even if, after a while, they stood still next to each other and were words again, that’s all they were: words, without meaning. More and more his head was filled with other things, images from before mostly, a dormitory, dimly lit; his bed stood by the window, its curtains closed; he was lying on his side, turned away from the other orphans who were whispering and laughing amongst themselves. He was guarded by an animal on the windowsill, a squirrel with glowing red eyes.
In school it was taking him longer and longer to think of answers. If he was asked a question in class, there’d be a long silence, followed by snickering.
The headaches were also annoying. The doctor pressed on his skull and asked: “Does this hurt? Does this? This?”
His foster mother brought him to the hospital. Wires on his scalp. X-rays. An MRI. The drooling business was fairly rare. His condition had a German name. Most sufferers became extremely paranoid. Disorderly too, unkempt. Maybe he’d develop difficulty breathing, become paralyzed or blind or mentally challenged, maybe not. There could be something strange going on in his brain. But it was also possible that he could be fine. “We had a case,” the specialist said cheerfully, “a boy of your age, he almost couldn’t function anymore. Still, he wanted to and did train for a marathon. And he succeeded! So anything is possible, Igor, it doesn’t have to turn out badly, don’t forget that! And now I want to talk to you mother for a minute.”
“Foster mother,” he said.
“Igor!” She looked like she now did more often: as if he was someone else, a stranger. “I don’t know where he gets that from,” she said.
The specialist wrote something in Igor’s file. “Could you wait for a second in the hall?” he said. “I’d like a short word with your foster mother.”
When she finally came out, she still had that look.
“What did he say?” Igor asked.
She smiled. “That it apparently doesn’t have to turn out badly.”
For now, until he was better, he could stay home.
In the morning his headache wasn’t too bad and she read to him. Stories about animals and kings and wizards, with lots of pictures.
“Are you OK?” she asked when he stared out the window for too long. “Can you follow it?”
Mostly he hadn’t listened. “Go a little slower,” he’d say then.
One night when he couldn’t sleep and slipped downstairs for a soft drink, his foster mother was lying in the dark on the sofa watching a video. An old one. He recognized himself in it. A handsome boy sitting on a stage with other charming, clever boys talking about fossils, glaciers and rocks. A lot of difficult words, complicated sentences.
He nodded. “Yeah, that was fun,” he said.
Two or three of those boys had been over to visit not that long ago, maybe even last week. They’d given him something, a computer game, and something else, what was it, a rock, pink, sharp, cold. Then they had to go, busy, school. “Awfully kind of you,” his foster mother had said. “”Will you come back again soon?”
She turned the video off.
“Your hair was too long then.” It sounded as if she wanted to say something else. “Shorter looks better on you.” Then she flung an ashtray at the wall and shouted: “Something has to happen. You have to want something. What do you want?”
He giggled, a high, girlish little laugh. Back, he wanted to say, back to the home. But he could feel that that wouldn’t be a good answer, so he rubbed the muscles in the back of his neck and whispered: “Pepsi.”
His foster mother was picking up glass shards and cigarette butts from the tiled floor. “And anything else?” she said quietly. “Think for a moment about actual, bigger things. Do you want to go on a vacation? Or in a real race car? Do you want to swim with the dolphins? Wouldn’t that be a nice idea? Or bake some pies?”
“Yes,” he said, just to say something, “bake some pies.”
“Because you know, honey…” she said.
His heart pounded with hard, rhythmic strokes, his throat was dry. He waited; she was going to tell all. Everything. About the home, his headaches, everything.
But she was silent. She was still crouched on the floor, using her hand as a dust pan to pick up the ashes.
“What kind of pies?” she asked after a while. “With whipping cream?”
Before he could even nod, she grabbed her cell phone from the table. “Upstairs, go upstairs, right now, please.” she said.
He listened on the landing. Who was she talking to? The home? The doctor? At night? Her voice was a dull murmur.
The following day she took him to a roadhouse restaurant. In front of the entrance were some garbage bins and a sign with a lot of words on it.
“Closed,” he said.
“Not for us,” she said. “Just watch.”
Inside it smelled of glue. The floor was covered in pails, rolls of carpet, and a green device that looked like a vacuum cleaner.
Two men in overalls were fastening metal plates onto a wall. “Hey there, Igor,” the older one said, a man with a beard. “How ya doin’?”
“Good,” he said.
"You look rad, man," said the other.
The dining room was empty. No, not completely; in the middle stood a table, fully set.
“Surprise!” she said. “For you and me. Come, let’s sit down.”
A tall, red-headed girl came and brought menus. “I’m so glad you’re our guest,” she said. “You can order anything. Anything you want. And you too, ma’am.”
His foster mother wanted only coffee. And an ashtray. She smoked one cigarette after another.
“Do you still remember,” she said when he was on his second sundae, “your birthday here? When we laughed so hard because the waiter had the hiccups?”
“I think so,” he said.
“Actually, I don’t remember it exactly anymore either,” she said. “It seems completely different now.” She looked like someone who was worried. Over him, maybe. Because he was drooling more and more and didn’t remember anything about a waiter who had the hiccups. Or maybe it was a test. Maybe there had never been a waiter!
“Do you like the ice cream?” she asked. And then she told him that in a few minutes he had an appointment with a Mr. Pinkus, the manager. An acquaintance of hers. A very close acquaintance. And that he was going to be doing something in the restaurant. Exactly what, that was going to be a surprise.
In Pinkus’s office boxes reached to the ceiling. “Pay no attention to the mess,” he said to them. “The renovations are almost done. At most another month. It’s really getting to be nuts here.”
Pinkus. Long grey hair, in a ponytail. He looked like an aging rocker. But a nice one. He put his arm around his foster mother and kept exclaiming how awesome it was that he was now finally allowed to meet Igor.
“If you’ll call me Pinkie,” he said, “then I’ll call you Igorowitz. Make a wish, Igorowitz. Just say what you want. Maybe something with soul?” And he whistled Animal Friends.
“I was at number twenty-eight,” Igor said.
“Don’t you think I know that, man?” Pinkus answered. “Listen, we’re going to treat you to an amazing afternoon. I have a plan.”
The following week, on the stage in the dining room, between two giant plastic VegaBurgers, Igor replayed his former hit. His foster mother, a group of construction workers, Pinkus, and the menu girl, all clapped and waved little flags.
“That was nuts!” Pinkus said when it was done. They were sitting in his office. For the occasion, there were five different types of cola for Igor to sample.
“Fantastic,” his foster mother said. “You were perfect. And you enjoyed it, didn’t you? I could see it.”
“But we’re not finished,” Pinkus said. “What would you think of…” He rolled his eyes and whispered: “Baking pies, Igorowitz? Real pies, with a crazy amount of whipping cream on them?”
His foster mother clapped her hands again. “You hear that?” she shouted. “Another great idea.”
Incredibly simple, making a pie, quite different from school or digging for stones; all he had to do was spray some cream from an aluminum can onto a pie. Cherries and pieces of pineapple on top, and, ready.
“Do you like it, my man? Are you having a good time?” Pinkus asked. “Are you coming again?”
He nodded in between two bites.
He became a Special Assistant. Helping out the kitchen staff, since the plasterers, carpenters, electricians, and everyone else were always hungry. His foster mother dropped him off every afternoon at twelve-thirty, and at quarter past three came to pick him up again. When she asked about what he’d done, he was usually too tired to be able to reply much.
“That makes sense,” she’d say. “All those new things, I wouldn’t remember either.” And she’d recline his car seat, and in no time he’d be asleep, dreaming about the home.
The squirrel with the glowing red eyes was a gift from a woman who had been sending him cards with photos of herself for some time. One evening the door of the dorm swung open. There she was, the woman. She pulled him from his bed and kissed his ears and mouth and chin. Tearfully, she said that the time had come. That he was finally allowed to go with her. Igor darling, she said, from now I’m your foster mother.
Claire, the menu girl with the red hair, explained everything to him. “No, slice it thinner, Igor. Look, like this.”
There was always a friendly hubbub in the kitchen. The cleaners smeared chocolate on the seat covers, the dishwashing girls pelted each other with grapes and made jokes with oversized carrots and mayonnaise. Igor cut and chopped in silence. The Mute Machine, they started to call him.
OK, sometimes he forgot things and he tired quickly, but there was obviously more wrong with the others than with him. Their jerky movements. Those crooked mouths with which they spoke far too fast. “Hey, Igor,” they’d often say in the middle of an incomprehensible story, “It’s true, isn’t it?” “Yes,” he’d reply then, “For sure, it’s true.”
One afternoon he slipped out because it was just too stuffy in the kitchen.
Pinkus came and sat beside him on the sidewalk and said that when the construction was finished the air would be better, much better. “And until then breathe, Igorowitz. Watch me. Breathe in…” Pinkus’s broad chest rose up. “And out. Easy, don’t push it, got it?”
He felt nauseous. Dizzy. He saw flashes of light, yellow light. And a man. A tall, thin man with cropped white hair, walking across the parking lot, stopping at one of the garbage bins and staring up into the air.
“Are you listening?” Pinkus asked, and continued with a stream of words, but they didn’t matter, the words, for Igor felt that only the man mattered, the man by the bin, who turned around and, with his hands in his pockets, came towards him.
“What do you know, it’s our balloonist,” Pinkus interrupted himself. “Are we a go for next week?”
“Provided the wind cooperates.” The man smiled at Igor.
“Do you know Igorowitz? One of the…” Pinkus looked like he was thinking. “One of the boys.”
“Ah.” The man was still smiling. At him. Only him. Like the girls did. But yet differently. “Hello Igorowitz.”
There was a honk from the parking lot. From the window of a dark-colored car an arm was waving. The man waved back without turning around to look.
“Your wife is becoming impatient,” Pinkus said.
The man didn’t move.
“Igorowitz,” Pinkus said, “do you think you could go back inside? The cream really needs you to whip it.”
A few days later it was stuffy again. He was gasping for air as he peeled the carrots. The others acted as if it didn’t bother them and sang dumb songs. His head pounding, he fled the kitchen and wandered through the pine trees behind the restaurant. Carefully, like an animal with an itch, he rubbed the most painful spot, just above his eyes, against a smooth, grey stone. In the past he would have had to think about the rock’s origins and structure, but now all he had to do was feel. It was a pleasant sensation. He ate some berries and gazed at the fluff floating on a small lake.
When, an hour later, he walked back into the kitchen, Pinkus himself was making sandwiches.
“Shit, what’d you do, man?” Pinkus touched his forehead. “Bump into something?”
“I forget,” Igor said.
“Away with that frown, I want to see your smile. And the rest of the guys here want to see it too, don’t you boys?”
Everyone shouted “Yes,” including Claire, who slapped him on the shoulder and said “Yes. Yes, smile.” John from desserts kissed him with his too thick, banana-scented lips and said: “It’s all too much. When I heard, it made me cry.”
Before he could ask what was all too much Pinkus yelled: “Shut up! Everyone shut the fuck up!”
When everyone was quiet, except John who was blowing his nose, Pinkus said more quietly: “Come out on the terrace, Igorowitz. Let’s talk.”
They were sitting on folding chairs in the blazing sun. Around them were bricks and tiles, steel plates and piles of grey-white sand. Next week, when the renovations were behind them, Pinkus said, there’d be room for at least three hundred people here. Suddenly, he grabbed Igor’s hand. “I’m worried about you,” he said. “And not only me, man. Are you happy here? Really happy? I just received a call from someone who’s dying to talk to you.”
It was going too fast. “Am I going back to the orphanage?” he asked.
But Pinkus had stood up already and said that they were going to take a short trip. And that his mother knew about it and was going to pick him up a little later.
Fields flashed by to the left and right; they appeared purple if he held his head sideways. The trees too, for that matter. And the sky. And the sun. And even Pinkus, who was steering with a purple hand, and with the purple fingers of his other hand was searching for a station on the radio. Not a problem. As soon as he righted his head, everything returned to its normal color.
“Where are we going?” he asked over the sound of piercing violin music. It was going to be the home, he could feel it. They’d had enough, all of them, everybody.
“To someone you’ve already met once before,” Pinkus said. “Maybe you’ve forgotten. Understandable, man, I’m also constantly forgetting things. But the someone I mean, that’s Stein. He performs miracles, that man, it’s unbelievable! Igorowitz, we could all use someone like that every now and then. Someone who listens and pays attention and says all the right things. Someone like your mother, but with more experience. I’d love to listen to you myself but, you know, it’s so busy and not normal right now, what with the renovations and all. On top of that I’d babble through you all the time, that’s just who I am, Igorowitz, you won’t believe it but when I was a child I’d go….”
By the time Pinkus was done with his story that was set in the past somewhere, they were driving through a suburban area. He stopped in front of a gleaming white building and unlocked the car door. “I’ll come pick you up in an hour. I have to go back to the chaos.”
With a handkerchief he wiped a string of drool from Igor’s chin. “Ring the bell next to that door, you’ll hear a buzz and you go inside. Then you take the elevator. Or the stairs. Stein is on the top floor. Room 48. Say it back to me to be sure.”
Obediently, he tried to stutter his way through it.
“No,” Pinkus said patiently, “again, man. Start over. You ring the bell… And then?”
Before he could knock a high-pitched voice said: “C’mon in, Igor.”
Room 48. In the center was a desk. A ceiling fan pushed warm air onto his face. On the left, next to a window with the blinds closed, was a poster of a hot air balloon. In addition to the rattle of the fan, there was another sound: a soft moan. Under the desk was an animal. No, it was a man, wearing a red clown nose, who said: “Hi, Igor.” A man who yesterday, or maybe longer ago, had mattered. The balloonist with a smile. Except now he was looking a lot less happy. “Where is my nose?” he asked.
“On your nose,” Igor answered.
The man fingered the red pod. He made a big show of crawling out from under the desk and pretended to bang his head against the edge. “Ouch, Igor!” he cried. “Wow, that hurts!”
Then, when Igor didn’t even smile, he placed his nose in a drawer of the desk and said in a normal voice: “Do you want to sit? Yes, go ahead, take that chair.”
First, Stein noted a few things on paper. His name, and how old he was. Meanwhile, Igor looked from Stein’s white spiked hair to the framed photo on the desk of a woman and a small dog.
“You don’t have to mince your words here.” Stein put his pen down. “Do you understand? Do you know what I mean?”
“So, say what you want; you can say everything and anything, Igor.”
“A friend, I think,” he mumbled. Because since the accident that wasn’t an accident he wasn’t that smart any more, but he did feel things, more than before, and what he now felt was that Stein was hoping for this answer.
“Here I am.” Stein’s smile was back. His forehead and cheeks became more wrinkled. “Igor, you’ve found him! Here’s your friend. Now tell me about the car. You must have had the scare of your life.”
“Wasn’t too bad.” He turned towards the poster. Two small, dark heads peered out from the basket under the balloon.
Stein waved at him.
“The accident, Igor. With your bike.”
“I don’t remember exactly anymore.”
“How about roughly then?”
He started with the Hummer. The warm hood. The TV. His hit. “I came in at 32, jumped to 29, then 28 for two weeks, then 37.”
“28! That’s pretty high. Go on.”
He was quiet again.
“You don’t want to talk so much anymore?” Stein nodded. “You’d rather look?”
The fan began a dull, irregular hum.
Igor shrugged his shoulders. And looked. At his friend Stein, his smiling friend Stein, who leaned towards him and said: “I think you’re angry. You’re furious…”
He touched Igor’s cheek with his thumb. “Should we make sure that the anger goes away?”
Igor felt himself become smaller. Smaller than before the accident. Even smaller than when his foster mother had come to pick him up from the home. He wanted nothing more than to bury his head in Stein’s lap. Especially because he felt that that was what his friend Stein wanted as well. Stein, who meanwhile was explaining how the world was like weak soup, and he, Igor a bouillon cube. “A bouillon cube bubbling with anger but in fact gentleness itself.”
“Do you follow what I’m saying? I only mean that you wouldn’t hurt a fly. Neither would I, for that matter.”
“Oh, but I would.” As proof he clapped his hands together, squishing a fly that had been circling around him. What was left of the wings and legs he scraped onto the edge of the desk. He smiled, even though his headache was becoming worse, as it usually did at the end of the afternoon.
For a while Stein said nothing. His left eyelid fluttered. Then he stood up, walked around the desk and kissed Igor on the forehead, right on the spot he had earlier in the afternoon rubbed against the boulder.
“You did that for me. Because I am your friend. I’m your friend, Igor! Just like you’re my friend.” Stein gave him another kiss, this time on his chin.
Igor felt goose bumps. His friend smelled of a fruit that yesterday he had sliced in the kitchen. For a salad. A big, yellow, tropical fruit, with a difficult name.
“Who are you mad at, Igor? Stein’s face was close to him.
“No one,” he said.
“My real one? I don’t know her.”
“We’ll talk about that at another time. Her friend, maybe? Are you angry with Mr Pinkus?”
Igor nodded, even though he liked Pinkus. He liked everyone. Pinkus too. Especially Mr Pinkus! Pinkus, who had let him perform Animal Friends and had made him Special Assistant.
Stein stood up. He had a stain on his shirt. Behind him the balloon moved.
“All of us are sometimes angry, Igor. Furious. Me just as much as you. Who do you love? An animal, perhaps? You’re probably crazy about animals.”
“I used to have a… I had a squirrel.”
“Really? What was his name?”
He remembered the box. It was large and grey, with lots of stamps and postmarks on it. That’s what it was in, the gift, for him. A squirrel, with its soft coat, and under the tail a button you had to press. Click: the eyes went red. Eyes that watched over him at night from on the window sill. How old was he then? Three? Six?
“Igor? Your squirrel, did he have a name?”
“No name. He was just a squirrel.”
Stein lit a cigarette. Smoke curled up past the balloon. “You know, Igor… Most people want something, but they don’t dare. And it’s what makes them go under. But that can’t happen to you.” He lowered his voice. “You’re fed up, right?”
Igor nodded. And drooled. Had Stein said that he was blond or not tired he also would have nodded. Because it was Stein, his friend.
With the words already set up for him, he echoed: “I’m fed up.” Again, he looked at the balloon. And the basket. With the two heads.
“Go on, Igor! You’re fed up. But with what? What are you fed up with?”
He couldn’t think of a thing. His foster mother? She read to him from books. She just shouldn’t insist that she was his mother. The headaches, the drooling? Annoying. They would pass. His colleagues in the kitchen? Pleasant enough. The kitchen itself?
“Are you daydreaming?” Stein stroked his arm. “What are you fed up with, tell.”
“Mr Pinkus is coming to pick you up any minute now. I know you’re dead tired from all these questions. But I still want to talk to you a lot more, and you with me, I hope. What are we…?”
Igor nodded. “Friends.” On the poster it was evening, or maybe night. The blue-grey sky, the blaze in the balloon, the two heads, one small, the other even smaller…
Stein turned around. “Aha, so that’s where your attention went. Do you like that?”
“Is that you?”
“In the basket? On the left, yes. Long ago.”
“And the other?”
“Someone I knew.”
“A boy, yes.”
Igor stood up. He felt something. A feeling, but no words.
He pressed his head against the stiff poster paper and then, with his thumbnail, scratched into the smaller, spherical head, until Stein, standing behind him, said “careful, careful, watch out, it’s going to rip…”
Stein, his friend, placing a hand on his shoulder and saying: “Come on Sunday and wave me off. At the launch. And then I’ll wave at you, from the air. Only at you, Igor!”
He turned around. “Who’s going?”
“In the balloon? No idea. No one else, I don’t think.”
Igor looked at the photo on Stein’s desk, at the woman and the dog. “Not her either?”
Stein kept staring at him, as if there was no picture. “Not her either.”
“I’m going to go.”
Stein shook his head no. “A trip like that takes too long. Another time, when you’re better.”
“I’m going. Or else…”
“Or else what?”
“I don’t understand, Igor.”
The woman in the picture was hugging the dog. In his head different, less happy images formed.
He wanted to stop the words, they were bad, he could feel it, and still he very quickly whispered three, four times: “I’ll tell.”
“You’ll tell.” Stein begun to hum. Then suddenly he stopped. “I don’t know what and to whom…” He walked to the window and slowly pulled up the blinds. “…and I don’t need to know. I don’t even want to know.” He sighed. “OK, you can come along. Because otherwise you’ll tell. Even though you don’t really want to do that. Because I’m your friend. And because I’m your friend, you don’t have to say anything.” He continued gazing outside. “But now you must go. Mr Pinkus is waiting.”
On Sunday Pinkus phoned early in the morning. “Would you like to help with the boxes, Igorowitz? If it isn’t too much for you, because I believe you also wanted to go in the balloon. Or should we cancel that?”
He even shocked himself at the ferocity of his response.
His foster mother took the receiver from him.
“Yes,” she said a couple of times. “Yes, I think so too.”
On the way to the restaurant she asked if he could please stop with the ‘foster mother’ stuff. “I know you’re not doing it on purpose,” she said, “you can’t help it, sweetheart, but I don’t like it. Do you know what I think?” She looked to the side. “You’ve stayed stuck in that movie. The first one you ever saw. About the Native, who is adopted by an explorer. Do you remember? That you cried so much over that? And we had to leave the theatre? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you cry like that since.”
He nodded. But he remembered nothing. Because there was nothing to remember. She was making it up. The way everyone was always making things up.
He closed his eyes. Enough. He was too tired to do any more reflecting.
Her fingers stroked his hair. “Hey, sleepyhead. Look what’s over there…”
They were stopped at a large field. In the distance there were trees, with a red speck in the middle. He threw open the car door and began to run, to out there, to go up in the air, with Stein, now, and not any later.
His foster mother shouted: “Wait!” She couldn’t keep up with him in her high heels. “Please wait!”
The basket was lying on its side, with the enormous balloon billowing above it. The black letters on the cloth were oscillating.
“Greetings…” Out of breath, his foster mother read the message. “Cherish Roadhouse Restaurant.” She sighed. “”Aren’t you scared? To go, in that thing?”
He shook his head no. He looked around, searching. Two boys were dragging cables and metal cylinders, but where was Stein?
“Come,” she said. “They’re waiting for you.”
On Cherish’s parking lot, delivery vans came and went. There were flags fluttering everywhere.
Pinkus stood in the hall on the phone. He was wearing a dark suit and his hair was cut. The pigtail was gone. He kissed Igor’s foster mother. He winked at Igor. “My saviour,” he shouted. “Great that you’re here to help, Igorowitz. Without you I’d go crazy, man! Can you go quickly to the kitchen?” He returned to the phone yelling that there was something wrong with the coffee bar and that there were far too few serving trolleys. And that more help was needed for the celebration, upstairs.
His foster mother smiled. “See you this afternoon. I’ll come and wave. At you and Stein.”
So she knew him! She knew Stein, his friend. Everyone knew everyone. They were a club, conspiring behind his back. But his head hurt too much to think about it more than that.
The kitchen smelled of paint and cement. Two girls were mopping the floor. “Hey, Igor,” they said. One, with glasses, whispered something, and the other one nodded.
At the main table Claire was stirring something pudding-y; with her free hand she was busily putting cards into boxes.
“It’s almost ready,” she said without looking up. “Can you finish the stars? Stick them on the boxes. A yellow, a red and a purple one. Is that OK, you think?”
He sat down across from her and began sticking yellow, red and purple stars. His fingers trembled; the stars oscillated the same way the letters on the balloon had.
“Make sure they stay on.” Claire hung over him. “Press them on well, Igor.”
He nodded; it was going slowly, he had only done two boxes. She filled a sink with soap and water and began scrubbing her hands. The mop girls meanwhile had disappeared without a word.
“So you want to go along in the balloon?” She slid onto the stool beside him. “But what if the wind drops, what then? Or imagine that something goes wrong with one of the tanks? There are no parachutes.”
Igor blinked rapidly. “I’m going,” he said.
“Stein smokes. That’s really dangerous with all that fuel! You’re not going, Igor. Let Pinkus go. Or someone else! Someone older! You can’t stand for hours in a basket like that, I couldn’t do it either! Hours of standing, hours of throwing boxes down. Are you finished with the stars?” she asked all in one breath. “Difficult, eh? Leave it.”
“I’m going,” he said.
“Why not?” His face was beet-red.
“I just told you why not. Much too dangerous. Next thing you know… sorry, but next thing you know you’ll have another accident.”
Silently, he stuck stars on another box.
“And maybe I shouldn’t say this,” she said, “but Stein... Stein, the pedophile, and you together, I don’t know…”
“I’m going,” he said.
It was two-thirty. His shirt was stuck to his back. Pinkus pushed him up with both hands. “Go ahead, get in, man.”
Stein grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him into the basket. “Are you OK?”
“Yes.” He smiled. He was dizzy. And something else. Something he’d felt when he’d yanked on his bike handlebars, or when Animal Friends had come in at number 32. Something that had to do with Stein.
“Crazy,” Pinkus shouted. “Good luck, guys.”
“Good luck,” echoed his foster mother and friends.
“First, we have to agree to something.” Stein looked at him intently. “You don’t touch a thing. Promise? Nothing, including that rope.” He pointed to a red cord.
“OK.” He clutched Stein’s arm with both his hands.
“Don’t be scared of the noise.”
Stein pulled a lever. A hiss, and then a howling roar: the flame, yards high.
As soon as he rose up from the ground, a peaceful feeling came over him. He was flying! Together with Stein. Stein, his friend. Above him the balloon fluttered for a moment, and then was still.
“You can let go of me now,” Stein said. “Hold on to the edge. It’s sturdy.”
He wrapped his fingers around the stiff leather railing. Because Stein, Stein his friend, didn’t want him to hold on to him anymore. The fields pushed away, became smaller. His foster mother, Pinkus, Claire and the others, were dolls that waved and shouted “Bye. Bye-bye.”
He nodded, nothing more.
Higher, higher he flew, over the treetops, the highway full of rushing toy cars, over the pastures with miniature horses that pranced away, higher, higher.
Behind him, Stein explained things: the burner, the gas hoses that fed the burner from the fuel tank, warmed air, thermal currents… The words floated away, like the yellow wisps of smoke from the tiny factory chimneys down and to the left, beyond the hills.
“Do you understand?” Stein said. “No? Doesn’t matter. Try that lever. With two hands…”
Igor pulled on it. Stiff. Difficult. Again the hissing sound. A flame shooting out of the burner.
“Great.” Stein pointed down. “And now it’s time to give the gnomes below a treat. We’re going to drop some presents.” His hand dug into a plastic bag and brought out a stack of boxes. “Here, throw some. Free drinks for the earthlings.”
Obediently he threw the boxes over the edge one by one; and one by one they disappeared straight down into the depths, until the wind took hold of them and carried them further afield. He didn’t see them land on the ground and neither, apparently, did the gnomes: they just kept waving.
An hour went by. An hour in which he looked around. At their red-checkered roof, the gas tanks, the fire extinguisher in the corner of the basket, and the gliding shadow of the balloon over the fields. But mostly, he looked at Stein. Stein, who seemed to be scared of something. Stein, who talked, but not as a friend.
He tried to think. About something he’d forgotten. Something in his pocket.
Stein opened the box, which was plastered with extra stars. He studied the gold-colored card. “Congratulations…” His voice was robotic. “You have won a romantic dinner for two at the completely renovated roadhouse restaurant Cherish. We at Cherish are ready twenty-four/seven for your dining pleasure.”
“It’s the grand prize.”
“That’s kind of you.” Stein looked away. “Hey, the wind has shifted. Did you notice?”
Igor nodded, although he hadn’t noticed anything. Except that he was feeling queasy and had to pee, really badly.
“You’re very quiet.”
He was too tired to answer. There was no answer. The nausea when he thought about the poster. With the dark sky. The two heads. Everything was different now, everything. He closed his eyes. There was an explosion in his head, bang, as if from a gun.
He felt a needle-prick behind his left eye. He was now lying on the bottom of the basket, a cushion under his neck. Diagonally above him the balloon cloth rustled, a million squares, sometimes purple, sometimes red. Stein was standing over him.
“The balloon.” His tongue was heavy, he could barely get his lips open.
“Don’t understand you.” Stein looked at him the way Pinkus, Claire, his foster mother did, when they thought he wasn’t watching. The you’re going to die-look.
He tried to open his mouth further. “I want to go in the balloon.”
“You are in the balloon.”
“The other,” he whispered.
Stein helped him up. The basket, Stein, the sky, everything tilted. Something streamed from his head, something that was cold and warm at the same time.
“Careful,” Stein said. “One more step…” He was helped to a stool. “OK, look at where we are, my boy. In the balloon. Do you remember?”
Igor leaned with his elbows on the edge. Below him, purple forests swept by, and a white, lit-up field. Meanwhile, Stein was on the phone with someone. Unintelligible. But it was about him, he could feel it.
“We’re in luck,” Stein said. He carelessly threw boxes overboard as he spoke. “We’re going to land right next to the restaurant.”
Igor bent further over the edge. There was the highway. And the roof of Cherish. The new outbuildings. Between the treetops the parking lot. A lot of cars. And people, a whole crowd. They were waving and cheering. At him.
“We’re going down now.”
Carefully he shook his painful, throbbing head.
“I don’t want to.”
“What don’t you want to?”
“To go down.”
Stein gave a few short tugs on a red cord. “Next month we’ll go again. Next month, in an even nicer balloon… If you want. You don’t ‘have-to’ anything, understand? Nothing is ‘must.’ Everything is ‘if you want.’”
“Everything.” He pulled himself up.
“Stay seated, Igor. Stay down!”
No. Wasn’t everything ‘if he wanted’?
He waved, and yelled a few half-sentences from Animal Friends. Then he pushed his pants down and did what he had needed to do for the longest time now: urinate. He peed over the edge, onto the screaming crowd. It didn’t matter. Everything was allowed. Then, when Stein said ‘Stop,’ he kissed him, Stein, Stein’s chin, his mouth, his hands, which were pushing him away but didn’t really seem to want to, he could feel it, he could feel everything.
The basket shuddered and swayed. Stein’s face turned into rubber. All of it seemed to vibrate: the eyelids, the cheeks, the mouth, especially the mouth, Stein’s talking mouth, his words coming from down deep, from under water, and then… then there was another explosion in his head.
“Don’t be scared.” Stein held on to him. Stein, his friend, embraced him and finally, finally, stroked his back. Stein, his friend, calling out: “Hold on. Almost there. Only two more minutes. Don’t be afraid, it’ll be alright. Next month we’ll do this again.”
Stein was lying. Everyone was lying. It wasn’t going to be alright, he knew it, there was no next month, there was only now. Two minutes. But now he was happy. He waved, waved to the world. Foggy. Everything below was blurred, Pinkus, the dog running back and forth around the parking lot, barking. His foster mother, shouting something, he felt it had something to do with the home, that she never talked about it because then he’d yank on his handlebars again.
“Go ahead and wave,” Stein said.
And he did. He pulled on the red cord and he waved.
Right up until the end.
(vertaling: Derek Van Dassen)