In his first week in Albania, while standing in the dark on his hotel balcony, a wave of pleasure swept through Porter Reid. It was a feeling he remembered having had once or twice in life, but it surprised him because he had not expected to enjoy himself here. On the contrary, he had been moody and distracted in the weeks before his departure, a little afraid of coming, a little apprehensive about leaving his wife behind.
On arrival he had been shocked, first by Rinas, with its cobbled runway and the soldiers squinting in the sunlight, rifles slung across their backs, and then more especially by the broken road into Tirana, which cut lengthwise along the valley floor, past ragged cornfields and busted concrete bunkers. The car had stopped to allow a herd of sheep to cross the road, and the driver, smiling into the rearview mirror, raised his palms in a gesture of helpless indulgence. When the road cleared, he jammed the car into gear, evidently embarrassed by the shambling countryside and the lethargy of the shepherd, by Porter’s expensive bags. Porter said nothing, hoping that silence would pass for balm. Instead he looked out the window at the country that spun past, feeling its strangeness like a hand softly exploring his chest.
This was his life in DC: he worked for the Justice Department, one of several hundred lawyers who undertook to keep the federal courts from foundering in a sea of litigation. His function was to expedite cases with special claims on the Constitution, and although not one of his projects had made it to the Supreme Court, he was young still, just thirty. No one had begun to question his ability.
Like most of his colleagues he worked too many hours in Washington’s endless game of first-past-the-post. They all played in the full knowledge that the post would move again, long before anyone came near it, and so their quirks and excesses were legion. Besides the secret drinkers and gamblers, there were lawyers who kept live mice in their desk drawers, and others who talked to themselves in the bathrooms. Justice was not the dignified palace people assumed it was.
Porter’s own excess, which he rarely suspected, was a highly wrought devotion to Gussie. They lived in Bethesda, safe and white and dull, in a brick split-level on a quiet street. Gussie worked part time for the community theater so she could stay home mornings once they had their first child. They’d been trying now for six months. It was the kind of pleasant, obtuse existence he had always wanted. Gussie, too, though she sometimes complained that they had reached middle age before her parents had.
And Gussie had had an affair.
Ilir took Porter’s bags out of the back of the Fiat and carried them up the stairs into the Dajti. The lobby was shabby but faintly grand. Its chief feature was on the wall, a large painting of a heroic worker, his heroic wife and their very heroic cow. It hung high above a cluster of chairs where a group of local businessmen was busy pursuing their redeemed art.
At the reception desk, the clerk was counting a pile of receipts with wetted fingers while behind him a woman passed dimly through the curtain. Porter watched the paper flicker in the clerk’s hands. He did not hear his name called until the tall man behind him touched his shoulder, and then he jumped at the unexpected contact.
“Didn’t mean to scare you,” the man said. “Are you Porter Reid?”
Porter nodded. “That’s me. You’re Tom?”
“I am. Don’t worry about the bags. There’s a café down that hall that will serve us a drink.”
Tom rapped on the counter with his knuckles and said something to the clerk. The man stopped counting and nodded abstractedly. Tom rapped again, insistent, and the clerk, sighing heavily, put down his receipts. He gave a key to Ilir then walked stiffly behind the curtain. They heard a short argument while Ilir was gathering up the bags, and a moment later the woman hurried out, smoothing her skirt.
In the hotel café, sunlight fell through the tall windows onto the varnished tables and empty, bent-legged chairs. Tom dropped his lanky frame onto a sofa and leaned to one side, as out of place among the baroque touches of the café as the hotel was among the battered yellow buildings of the city. To Porter, sighing now, trying to breathe out the strangeness he still felt from Rinas, Tom looked tough and worn, a field man, as Washington called his type, with all the overtones of wasted lives and ruined careers the term carried with it.
Porter was himself tall, not rangy like Tom, but long and a little soft, with fine, thin features and vague eyes. His dark hair, long on top, tangled now, was cropped at the neck, just touching the collar of his shirt.
“How was the trip?” Tom asked.
“Long,” Porter said. “Longest plane ride I ever took.”
Tom grimaced. “Not even London?”
Porter shook his head.
Goddamn, Tom thought.
“The brief said you’ve been here a while.” Porter said.
“Aldridge. And that other guy from the travel office.”
“I didn’t know there was a travel office.”
“Do you like it?”
Tom frowned. “What does the travel office do?”
“Justice for all, I guess. We must have fifty field offices by now.”
The waiter came over and took their order. When he came back Tom raised his tumbler.
“Better get used to this,” he said. “It sort of takes the place of shaking hands here.”
Porter lifted the glass to his nose and flinched.
“You’re not going to catch the return flight?”
“No, no,” Porter said. He smiled self-consciously. “I’m a little thrown. This is all new to me.”
Tom nodded. Most of the people Justice sent out kept a tight rein on their various dignities. He hated a certain class of them; the studied casualness, the careerism, the business class seats. The other guys had brought it all with them. He had been hoping they wouldn’t send anyone else. At least this one wasn’t out to impress.
“It’s not exactly Paris,” he said. “Be right back.”
Tom went to the bar at the end of the room and brought back a bottle.
“This is raki,” he said. “The national drink. We may have to get a little drunk.”
Porter shook his head. “I can’t.”
“No one’s watching.”
“It’s not that,” Porter said. But he realized it was that, at least partly. He had gotten on the plane in his business suit and tie, and now eighteen hours later, tie still in place, he had felt he was still somehow on duty. It was true, though. No one was watching him.
“It helps the jet lag.”
“I doubt it,” he said. “But what the hell.”
Porter looked out the window again. Time had passed, was passing, though not in the linear way he was used to. Outside the hot air stirred the branches of the trees, setting them to scratch softly on the windows. Sunlight flooded the room, soaking into his vision, and as he looked up at the twenty feet of air between himself and the ceiling, he had the sensation of floating. It was odd and pleasant now, as though the day were unscrolling of its own and his part was only to watch.
He finished his drink and smiled at a woman who caught his eye as she entered the room. Porter kept expecting her to stop, but she made her way through the tables until she stood directly in front of him, presenting her hand formally.
Tom stood up. “This is Anila Gjata,” he said. “My assistant. Anila, this is Porter Reid.”
Her grip was weak, yielding. Porter thought he saw her dip her knees in a shallow curtsy and caught himself inclining his head toward her. She was a pretty, lush woman, very young. Looking at her, a wave of desire hit him like a blow. He tried to check it, couldn’t, then let go of her hand.
“Nice to meet you,” she said.
On his third morning in Tirana, Porter found a name for the strangeness that lay over him. He had risen before dawn to take advantage of the little hot water the Dajti offered, and after bathing, while lying across the bed in the darkness, he heard the clopping of a horse as it passed beneath his window.
Tirana was full of horses, sorry, ragged animals that pulled carts through the chaos of traffic on the Boulevard. Porter had seen sheep, too, grazing on the lawns of the ministries, and a cow drifting peacefully along the grassy bank of the ditch people called the river. At the time he thought of the animals as just another absurdity, like the colossal pyramid that sat in the middle of town or the cafes wrapping sandwiches in pages torn from Enver Hoxha’s collected works.
What struck him as he heard the horse pass in the gloaming was that he had been transported to the 1930’s. It wasn’t just the livestock in the streets of the capital or the fascist breadth of Skanderbeg Square. He felt a profound sense of diminishment in all things. The city was so bare, the country so small, the people so poor that everyone simply made do, dreaming, yes, but sensibly, in proportion, and with a fine sense of humility.
That thought gave him a twinge of kinship and he went curiously out to the balcony to look at the city. It was too dark to see more than silhouettes, but the night was soft and still. Streetlights strung the Boulevard in a bright necklace that looked very pretty against the black houses.
The horse’s hoof beats echoed on the pavement somewhere up toward the ministries. Otherwise the city lay silent, reverential. Porter leaned on the rail, happy in the reflective calm of the moment. Then he heard a startling call from the city’s center -- a seductive plaint stopped him cold. When he realized it was the morning’s first call to prayer, launched from the minaret of the big mosque on the square, he beamed into the darkness. Albania seemed as far from the dull corridors of Justice as one could get.
Porter didn’t hate his work or his wife or any other single element of his existence, but from the dark balcony of his hotel room he sensed for the first time the vastness of the world. His own piece of it seemed trifling: a job, an inconstant mate, a mortgage; it fell easily away in the dark. As if from around a corner a picture of Anila appeared in his mind. Her hair tumbled like black silk, as in a dream, past an eye, a breast, the soft curve of a hip; and that was when the unreasoning, sweet wave of pleasure broke over him.
Ilir came for them early. He had washed the Fiat until it glimmered like a minnow in the sunlight. Every day that his building had water he washed the car. Mr. Tom paid him well, as much as the Mercedes drivers got. There were better cars, but Ilir honestly didn’t know of any better drivers. Most people had only learned to drive in the past few months. They barreled through intersections and onto sidewalks, scattering pedestrians like marbles. Ilir had driven for the textile factory for twenty years before it burned. He didn’t begrudge the others their cars, he just wished they would get the hang of it.
If he could keep driving for Mr. Tom, he would have enough to buy a Mercedes himself next summer. He could get one for two thousand dollars from the right people, and once he had a Mercedes he could drive for anybody. He could even be selective. No more driving for the ministries, which didn’t pay, or the missionaries, who made him uncomfortable, or the Italians, who were mostly crooked though you could never tell.
What he really wanted, what he had not yet told anybody, even Alma, was to own three or four cars. He would get his brothers or Sokol or Genti to drive them, and together they would start a little company. They would become known to the businessmen, especially the Americans, and they would drive the length of the country, and in a few years the roads would get better and the drivers would get better and the police would be less corrupt. He would buy Alma new clothes and stop worrying about the children and they would buy things for the apartment, maybe take a trip to Italy or Greece, even to Germany, maybe even to America, though of course none of it would ever, ever happen to a people as cursed, as unlucky, as unhappy as his.
Ilir waited next to his shining car and a saying he hadn’t thought of in years came to him: God gave Albania lots of wheat, but the Devil took all the sacks. Well, he didn’t know about God, but he did believe in the Devil. Hoxha had taken the sacks, all right. He had done that and more. He had brought out the worst features of the national character, the jealousy and pettiness, the gossip, the haste to do unto someone else before they did unto you. Not that he displayed those things himself. As the genial father, he had spawned a nation of lunatic children, who recited nonsense, spied on each other and squabbled over the scraps. And all the while, people had believed and trusted and honored him with that genius for delusion that rested at the bottom of every Albanian soul.
What bothered Ilir most were the years they had all accepted it. In his inner heart, he couldn’t hate the man. If no one had followed, Hoxha would have become one of those countless old men sitting in cafes, arguing all day over family obligations or history, heavy-shouldered, blunt, ignored. Instead they had followed him like lambs. They were all scared, of course, and hadn’t known any better, but some of them had known better.
Ilir’s stomach was not good. He felt hollow and complicitous. Like everyone else he had just wanted to get along, without heroism or sacrifice. Given a chance, he would have been an ordinary man, not the shameful article he felt himself to be. But then, in those days, under those conditions, it had been hard enough just to stay anonymous.
When Hoxha died – shocking and final as it was – the world slipped a gear. Like everyone else, Ilir wept openly. The universe gaped, an abyss threatened, but instead of oblivion there came the long, slow slide. Alia, weak, maybe even decent; galloping rumors of an invasion from the north; kids wearing their hair long; gangs marauding in the North. Then the students’ hunger strike, the soldiers firing into the crowds and then the whole country going boundingly, senselessly mad.
The strangest part about the wrecking of his own factory was that the arsonists, the looters, the thugs with bricks were all perfectly ordinary people who had worked there for years. Ilir had himself overturned the Director’s car with two of the other chauffeurs and burned it into a tangled black hulk. Those days blended now into a chaos of raiding parties. Ilir retained a clear picture of three middle-aged women, rolling a huge, bare spool out the double doors of the main production hall. By then the guards and soldiers had long since disappeared.
Now that that period had passed, Ilir’s own actions at the factory made it hard for him to condemn the looting of the country. Everyone he knew shared feelings of pride and shame and futility. He was disappointed in his neighbors and sometimes angry at himself, but although there was no longer any factory for any of them to work in, he did not feel remorse. No one talked about it anymore. It was too complex
Later, when the foreigners came, he had complicated feelings about them, too. They were all so tall and rich and confident. They were so goddamn optimistic. Mr. Tom never made anyone feel bad about the country, but some of the others. Still, they came in droves, economists and missionaries, lawyers and engineers, each with an answer for what ailed the country. Ilir was grateful for the interest, but after fifty years of being told what to do he wanted to be left alone for a while. He was tired of prescriptions.
He ran his hand over the hatch of his car as if it were the flank of a good horse. It was not much of a car, really. The rear tires were a little low, now that he looked at them. It was too late though, he would have to fill them in Bulqiz. The others were coming down the steps, Mr. Tom in front with his grim, leaning gait, and Mr. Porter talking to Anila. Mr. Porter’s face was bright with fever. Lots of them got sick in their first few days.
The road led north along the line of mountains, past low-lying hills and over gravel-strewn riverbeds. Cows grazed in the ditches, bony withers showing through the tall grass. It was a hazy, hot September day, the sky a dirty blue and the air greasy with diesel fumes. Ilir drove carefully, holding the car well off the shoulder when there was no oncoming traffic, and gingerly rounding the blinkered horses, the carts and wagons and bicycles that moved across the coastal plain.
They passed through ragged towns, where laundry flapped from tenement balconies and children played in the dirt yards of bare, ruined houses. The soil in the fields was baked orange. Along the road dug-out bunkers lay cracked and broken, like great stone mushrooms, their bellies to the sun. Out in the fields peasants toiled across the latifundia of extinct families, patient figures below the great vault of the sky.
Porter’s intoxication slackened as he watched the countryside, but he couldn’t snap himself out of it and he couldn’t shake his feeling for Anila. Sitting next to each other in the back seat, their knees and shoulders touched when the car cornered, lifting him into a kind of exaltation that overwhelmed his myriad internal barriers: Washington lawyer, married, foreigner. It seemed to him that he had never been reckless or inconsiderate enough. As the hot, depleted countryside spun past the window, the caution with which he had crossed thirty years began to seem like folly.
He watched Anila gather the soft wire of her hair behind her head, shake it, then let it tumble onto her slender neck. She might be twenty or twenty-one, young enough at any rate to carry off such a gesture. Her languor was convincing in its innocence, but the snug fit of her clothes, her unbound hair, stirred inchoate things in him that threatened to wipe out the decencies of his rearing.
“Where did you learn to speak English?” Porter was saying.
“I studied at the university. Also, some of my friends and I have practiced together
“It’s very good.”
Anila laughed. “I hope it’s good. It’s my job.”
Tom spoke over his shoulder. “Anila’s a terrible snob about her English. She’ll be correcting you before the day’s over.”
“She corrects me constantly.”
“Because you make mistakes.” Anila turned to Porter. “Anyway, I like Americans very much. You are unformal.”
“That’s what they say about us,” Tom said. “The unformal Americans.”
“Are you from Washington, too?”
“Yes,” Porter said. “But I’m not formal.”
Anila tilted her head and smiled at him. The gesture was rather frank, and his heart clattered.
“What is your origin?” she said.
“Your origin. Where did your family come from before America?”
“I don’t really know. I think some of them were Scottish.”
“You hear that?” Anila said to Tom. “He’s Scottish.”
“So, you’re Scottish.”
“Well, not really. I’ve never actually been there.”
“No,” she said. “You’re Scottish.”
Porter shifted uncomfortably and settled his back against the door. The car wound down the road, passing old people on donkeys and shepherds idling on the hillsides and workers baking bricks in a fearful kiln that poured smoke from all sides. With the sun beating through the roof Anila had turned her face to the steady rush of air from the open windows. Porter caught himself staring at her profile. The heat only inflamed her beauty, filling the car with it like an apparition.
“You know,” he said, surprising himself, “You’re quite beautiful. That is, you’re quite a beauty.”
Anila looked at him enigmatically but did not offer a response. Porter had a vague notion that he was making an idiot of himself, but at the moment he didn’t care very much. She was near and lush, the startling embodiment of possibility. For the first time in years he wasn’t plotting strategy or cross-examining or considering consequences. He rested his head on the hot cloth of the seat, closed his eyes and concentrated on not caring.
Tom had a wife whom he had not seen in nearly nine months. He probably wouldn’t see her again until the day he went for his things, or, if she were still mad enough, the day he signed papers that would lead to an abrupt, uncontested break with his old life. It bothered him less and less, as his old life seemed less and less his, as his slender and unremarkable past receded into the dim sprawl of his remembered America. Leaving it had been easy, but coming here, unknowing and half resentful, had given him the most profound shock of his life.
He couldn’t say what it was that drew him so strongly to the shabbiness and misfortune, the ordure he saw everywhere around him. He didn’t like it particularly, but for a man who sometimes wondered why he didn’t feel things as others seemed to feel them, Albania was a revelation. Within moments of his arrival he thought the place would break his heart.
Looking through the spotted windshield, he felt affection for the scrub and rock of the country. The road, writhing before him in long, slow curves, was taking them up into mountains that were a deep iron color, rugged, implacable. He wondered briefly what his wife was doing at the moment, what ordinary thing -- brushing her hair, reading the paper -- but soon lost the idea. Wives were a funny thing. Not funny exactly, but difficult, imponderable. He had wanted to understand his a long time ago, but they had somehow forgotten each other in the anaesthetic pall of their careers. They had looked at each other morning after morning, had talked and conspired and flirted and stormed at each other regularly and in the end he didn’t think he had ever approached her, not in any meaningful way. Whether that was because they weren’t well matched or because it just wasn’t possible for two people to know each other like that he couldn’t say anymore. Life was getting more complicated, not less, as he got older.
From behind him he heard Porter saying something corny to Anila. Straight-shooting Porter, with the business suit and tie, hustling an innocent young woman in a foreign land. It made him feel both better and worse.
“Hey Romance,” he said over his shoulder. “I thought you were married.”
Porter looked out the window at the curve of the hill, where the road dropped away down the mountainside, tumbled past the red rocks and then stretched across the littoral, flat, like a map, to the sea.
“I thought so, too,” he murmured.
They had been married in an old Boston church a year and a half before moving to Bethesda. Porter secretly feared the ceremony wouldn’t mean much to him, and it hadn’t, except in the reflected pleasure of his family. He was too self-conscious of the significance of the moment, too aware of how he was supposed to feel to lose himself in the riotous glow that enveloped Gussie. At the reception in her ivory gown she had floated over the lawns of the Shady Hill School, greeting relatives who gathered in knots under the trees. Much wine was spilled and much taffeta ruined.
During the lambent days of the honeymoon that followed, the hard knowledge that he was, indeed, married softened by degrees into something familiar, then into pleasure, and finally into wonder. By then, except for occasional fits of tenderness, Gussie was past her rapture. Porter kept waiting for them to fall into synch, but the fact of marriage had somehow refigured their geometry, and they found themselves swinging from asymptote to asymptote. When he wanted to go out, she wanted to lie in bed; when she wanted to swim, he remained on the beach, disinclined to go into the water but watching her jealously.
This new opposition traveled home with them. It was the last thing either of them had expected. Eventually, though, it went away, or else they got used to it. At least, he had thought so until last spring.
When he thought of Gussie he saw her on a terrace, wearing a white sweater, her hair warm from the sunlight. It was an image he nursed in secret, one he thought he might have seen just before they were married, except he’d never seen that white sweater again, and his horror of cliché, his fear of being laughed at, kept him from ever mentioning it.
Gussie smelled of vanilla. She played poker delicately and won. In photographs she was a slender, dark woman with luminous eyes that looked continually surprised. In person her modesty and occasional shyness gave her a quiet beauty that could turn radiant or mousy on a shift in the weather, a passing thought.
Remembering his wife now, Porter felt a tug of conscience. Apathetically, he wished away the days-long dream of Albania. Anila was leaning back beside him, her hair fanned against the seatback, recumbent, a drowsy odalisque. He looked away, gave her up, but couldn’t wrench himself back into the clear, legal world.
Instead he shut his eyes. Of course he loved Gussie. Yes, he did. Except he couldn’t produce any feelings at the moment. He just knew he loved her in a steady way that included grocery shopping and paying bills and visiting her parents. He loved her in spite of things or because she had nearly killed him or else because she needed him so badly now that he could be absolutely sure of her. Loving her made life simple. From the back seat of the Fiat, it suddenly seemed like a shabby gallery of reasons.
A week before leaving DC he had teased her about not inviting anyone home while he was gone. Her stricken look made him regret his words instantly, and now, remembering her face in that moment, he finally felt something for her. Yes, there it was.
He opened his eyes and Anila, half-asleep, smiled at him. It was not too late to give this up. They were aware of each other now, but it was still a flirtation, still playful. He could turn his attention on his work, on his wife, and in a couple weeks he could reclaim the life they had constructed in Bethesda.
At noon they stopped for apricots and a drink at a shack on the fringes of a roadside market. Ilir wanted to press on, but Tom had insisted, and so they all stood in the smeary shade of a tarp, sipping Fantas and watching the locals and their animals ply the road.
“You haven’t seen an ugly town until you’ve seen Bulqiz,” Tom said. “It’s a mining town. Just driving through it makes you want to slit your wrists.”
Porter nodded. He uncrossed his arms to wave at a fly, then crossed them again.
“Something wrong?” Tom said.
Anila and Ilir stood just inside the dark stripe of shade, talking quietly. Behind them sat four policemen, hunched over a table, their heavy elbows causing it to sag. They were red-eyed and permanently disheveled, provincial men with unbottled authority and an air of permanent distrust. A couple of chickens pecked at the edge of the road, calling out their distress at the weight of the sunlight, and then as quickly forgetting.
“Be careful with Anila, hear?” Tom said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, don’t be an idiot. You’re not in Washington.”
“Listen,” Porter said. “This is going to sound weird.”
He drained his Fanta and looked around for a place to put the can. One of the policemen stared at him.
“What does he want?” Porter asked.
“Nothing,” said Tom. “We want to have as little as possible to do with them.”
“There’s something so strange about this place,” Porter said. “I mean the whole country. It’s seductive and kind of painful at the same time. Do you know what I mean?”
“Ever since I got here I’ve felt a little – I don’t know. Drunk? Nothing seems real, exactly. It’s familiar, but at the same time it’s as strange as anything I’ve ever seen.”
“Wait for Bulqiz.”
“I feel like I’m walking on the moon.”
“Albania’s not the moon,” Tom said.
“That’s not what I meant. I just can’t seem to catch a clean breath. I can’t seem to focus on anything.”
Ilir caught Tom’s eye and glanced toward the car.
“OK.” Tom nodded and turned away from Porter. “What you need is work.”
They got back into the car, Porter conscious again of his proximity to Anila. As Ilir was pulling out onto the road one of the policemen stepped in front of the car and put his hand on the hood. Ilir swore under his breath. The policeman came around to the driver’s side and leaned through the window. His sour smell filled the car. Ilir shook his hand and they talked for a minute.
“What’s he saying?” Porter asked. He felt suddenly tired and out of sorts. His memories of Gussie weighed heavily where before they had been only so much air. The heat and smells were oppressive now, rather than exotic; he didn’t feel much like going anywhere.
“He wants to know where are we going,” Anila said. “He says the airs in the tires are low.”
“Great,” said Porter. “Just what we need.”
Tom turned around in the front seat. “Give me your passport,” he said.
“Just give it to me.”
Ilir watched the policeman rub his thumb over the driver’s license. The dull expression of the face under the cap made Ilir think it made no difference to the man if he let them all go or shot them. He rifled through the rest of the documents without interest and grunted. Everyone in the car waited patiently.
“Mirë?” Ilir said.
The policeman straightened up and called to his colleagues under the tarp; after a moment one of them came over. The two officers conferred, hats off, periodically waving at flies.
When they came back to the car, Tom pulled a pack of cigarettes out of the glove compartment and offered it to them. They looked at it contemptuously, then took four cigarettes each, leaving only one in the pack.
“Nice guys,” Porter said. He handed his passport to Tom. “What do they want?”
Tom ignored him and leaned toward the driver’s window. “Si jeni?” he said.
“What’s he saying?” Porter asked. “What does he want?”
The second policeman had started to circle the car, flicking at the license plate and the tires with his baton. Ilir sighed and got out. He went around to the back and opened the trunk.
The other policeman stuck his head back into the car and stared at Tom. Tom looked straight ahead, his face expressionless. The policeman nodded slightly, then fixed his brown gaze on Anila. She was sitting on the edge of the seat, as though it were an eggshell. Porter felt her fear mingle with his own.
“Do we have to put up with this?” Porter said. He was a little shocked at their contempt. “Do they know we’re working with the courts?”
“Quiet,” Tom said.
The policeman leaned further into the car and said something. Porter felt the man’s menace like a weight. He was having trouble catching his breath.
At the back of the car Ilir pointed out the spare tire, the reflective triangle and the required tools: jack, spare lugs, socket wrench and flashlight. He kept everything beyond the legal minimum, but it didn’t help. They would always find something and demand a fine on the spot.
The policeman was pinching the back right tire. “Flat,” he said. “Your vehicle is unsafe.”
“Listen, brother,” Ilir said. “These people are in a hurry.”
The policeman looked up.
“They’re Americans. They’re going to work with the judge in Bulqiz.”
The policeman spat. “Leka’s a pig.”
“I don’t know about that. I’m just driving them there.”
“You should keep your vehicle in better condition. This is going to cost.”
“The tire’s all right,” Ilir said. He stopped and said more quietly, “It’s not flat.”
The policeman brought out his book of tickets and licked the stub of his pencil. “Would you rather pay the President or me?” he said.
“No,” Ilir said firmly. “It’s not flat.”
“Let me out,” Porter said from inside the car.
Tom turned and looked him over appraisingly. Porter was not doing well. He had been fine whistling up Anila’s skirt, but trouble clearly did not bring out the best in him. His face was pinched and his eyes held Tom’s in a kind of trifling appeal. Tom turned back to the front.
“Stay in the car,” he said. From behind the car came the bright tinkle of breaking glass.
“Shit,” said Tom.
“What was that?” Anila said.
“I really have to get out,” Porter said. “I’m going to get out.”
“Fine. You do that.”
“I’m getting out,” Porter said, apologetically. He opened the door rapidly and stood up into the vee it made with the body of the car. The slow air tickled the damp streaks at his temples. He made an effort to look around. Across the road a clot of local men was watching them. They were unshaven and ill-dressed, moving restlessly and talking in low tones. One of them raised his hand, as if waving.
Porter felt no better standing. The narrow fear of the car translated into intense anxiety; he feared the open sky, the light, the road. His heart pounded out a tattoo and his lungs drew ragged, involuntary breath.
It was silly, he knew, to become so undone over a couple of surly cops, but he hadn’t really had control of himself for three days now. Even the smallest stimulus called forth a kind of throbbing response in him. He had never been so inundated with emotion before and was wondering a bit desperately how to shut off the flood. He couldn’t seem to ignore anything, not the weather or the people, not the shabbiness of the countryside or the guilty pleasure of Anila’s company. It was too much. He should probably leave before he got washed away somehow.
The thought distracted him, and he did not hear the blow from behind the car. When Ilir grunted and fell hard against the rear windshield, however, Porter wheeled and saw two policemen standing over the driver’s bent form. He felt dizzy.
The men across the road began to shout. Tom, rising out of the passenger seat, could not make out the words. He pushed past Porter’s startled shape and stepped in front of Ilir. The policemen backed up uncertainly, then began to yell at the crowd. Their two colleagues had run out from under the tarp and were shouting, too, their voices lost in the fray, but their burly figures, their blue uniforms, prominent against the drab garb of the peasants.
Tom put a hand on Ilir’s shoulder and spoke earnestly to one of the policemen. Porter turned his head slowly and took in the confusion across the road. The crowd was larger now and increasingly unruly. Several men were gesturing extravagantly, their mouths contorted in anger. Two of the policemen raised their batons, causing a frenzied ripple in the crowd. To one side, an old woman pushed frantically at the hindquarters of a calf that lowed mournfully in a ditch.
Porter saw the door on the other side of the car open. Anila stepped out, putting her foot down like a frightened deer. As she turned her head back and forth, her dark hair swung over her shoulder. Porter started to say something, but one of the policemen rushed over to her and shoved her back into the car. At that, the mob roared and surged across the road, past the blue uniforms and batons. They flooded around the car, jostling the policeman who had laid hold of Anila. The man was shouting furiously now, with just enough authority in his voice to keep the roiling crowd from running riot. He was nearly pinned to the car by the weight of bodies, but his big shoulders and the baton he swung above his head made him terrible, and the urgent sway around him did not quite break into violence.
Porter tried to get back in the car, but several men had already thrust partway in, heads bobbing, all talking to Anila at once. He started to push, but they shoved him back until he was carried nearly to the edge of the scene. He stood there, his resistance broken, wondering what to do, what was expected of him, how things could have happened so quickly. The scene vaguely reminded him of something, a barroom fight, a brawl at a baseball game. People pushed each other, but not seriously, as much for balance as out of anger. A dozen men milled at the edge of the scene, exhorting each other, somehow needing contact with the excitement of the middle.
Porter felt someone draw his wallet out of his pocket, but when he clapped his hand over it and spun around, he couldn’t make out anyone; he saw only a sea of colors, the faces like dabs of beige on a canvas. Then the sky tilted and he felt himself sliding sideways, and then he sat down.
After it was over, Ilir sat in the car, fuming, while Anila wiped his forehead. The excitement had drained utterly from the crowd once it lost the object of its outrage. The police had let Ilir get in the back seat and Anila, refusing to get out again, was lost to the sight of all but half a dozen men. Inside the car she seemed neither violated nor quite so fragile and they eventually tired of her profile. The policemen had continued to wave their nightsticks, but they refrained from beating anyone else, and eventually the mob allowed itself to be cowed. A few men stood around awkwardly for a while, breaking into curses, but the heat was gone. When the officers brought out their leather books and the blocks of tickets, those who were left crossed back over the road, where they stared sullenly at the car.
Tom settled matters with the police, joining them for a coffee in the shade under the tarp because that was they way it was done. By the end of it, they were clapping him on the back and promising to take good care of him if he ever came their way again and all in all he had managed to take it decently.
When he finished, he went back to the car. Anila sat in the backseat alone, her hands crossed at the wrists.
“Where is everyone?” he asked.
She gazed at him, perfectly calm now, her ringed fingers rubbing lightly against each other.
“We didn’t see Mr. Porter,” she said. “Ilir has gone to look.”
“How is he?”
“Ilir? He’s fine. I think he is very angry, but he’s not hurted.”
“I hate the police,” she said dully. “I have always hated the police.”
Tom got in the car and let the door swing shut. He couldn’t hate them, much as he tried. Just like he couldn’t hate his counterpart at the Justice Ministry who aspired to major league corruption, or the customs officer at Rinas who wore better suits every time he saw him, or the fruit sellers who charged him American prices or the Roma who left infants in cardboard boxes to beg in the sweltering streets all day. In the mad scramble from the past, people abandoned all that was graceful and fortunate in the culture.
It was too hard as an outsider to separate who a person was from what he did. He couldn’t judge yet when to condemn people for their actions and when to make allowances for what they had suffered. The truly good ones were easy to spot. He just couldn’t distinguish between the awful and the merely mediocre.
“Never mind,” he said.
“What never mind! Those are bastards, those police.”
“They’re just ignorant.”
“Why are you defending them? You’re like a Kosovar.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “How are you, sweetheart?”
“The same,” she said. “I’m always the same.”
Ilir walked stiffly through the market. He had been thinking for a while about getting a gun. Alma had wanted him to have one when the gangs had taken over the streets, but now she was against it. She didn’t know that the police were worse than the criminals. Having a gun would make him feel better, though he feared his own temper, and worse, his memory. In ten years, he knew, he would still be choking on his anger. That much, at least, was his birthright.
The market petered out beyond a low wall, where the local Roma sat on their haunches. Ilir passed them without a glance, hurrying up a shallow ridge that stood between the market and the village. He would find Mr. Porter quickly enough. He was a strange man, Ilir thought bitterly, always flushed, perhaps a bit stupid. He had a safe, rich life but he suffered from some kind of dissatisfaction. It was incredible. Let him live in Albania for fifty years and then he would know about dissatisfaction.
The slope increased sharply near the ridge line. Ilir scrambled over the remains of a stone wall and saw the village laid out below him: a cluster of houses, a small square for the market, a dry river bed. He saw Porter in the street. The villagers had not yet spotted him and he stood alone and inert, as if waiting for something – a word, a breeze – to carry him forward another step.
Ilir started to call to him but stopped himself. The man was clearly dazed, perhaps crazy. Instead of protecting his children and making money, he sought out this desolate and abandoned corner of hell. All the money and education that had gone into making him was being squandered so blatantly that Ilir shook with a kind of helpless fury. He felt like dropping a heavy rock on the useless, ungrateful man. On him and on every official, gangster, politician, neighbor and foreigner who had patronized him, had bullied and provoked and ignored him. One blow and he would finally have a little stature and weight in a world that had moved him inexorably toward diminishment. A single blow, but a good one, a final one, and he would be released.
The broken walls lining the street obscured all but the tile roofs of the houses behind them. A few stunted trees grew at intervals, casting shadows into the dirt, where thin, dun-colored dogs lay asleep or dead. It was getting on toward two, and in the distance the market clamored and called its last business of the day. Porter turned toward the noise but saw only the piebald hump of the hill he had crossed. At the top, he saw a figure turn and slowly sink below the horizon.
Across the plaza a goat, hung by its heels from the handlebars of a bicycle, bleated a threnody into the din and heat. Porter breathed.