Weaving around all those horse drawn wagons toiling along the road Hesus didn’t feel the memories nestling in his blood. Because he could have waded a rental car through a herd of sheep almost anywhere in the world, or got his kick racing a weatherworn passenger train, hot air parting his coarse black hair through the open window, in some more exotic and unfamiliar place. It was just another adventure, this return to the neglected Romanian countryside. He waved his arm like a finish-line flag at the startled conductor when he bounced across the tracks.
In the rearview mirror Hesus watched the train pass, and could still glimpse a young man, not yet certain who he was, ready to throw himself into whatever chance put in his way. It was two decades since he fell into certain habits, a method, he liked to call it, cemented by the success of the thesis he wrote when he returned to college in the United States. Turned out to be his first published piece.
Hesus wound around the cloudless countryside, closer and closer to the olive-green mountains, delicate spires and orthodox crosses lording over scattered hamlets bobbing in and out of view, until the village of Lunca appeared and he parked in front of the Charivari Inn, half hidden by willows and common ash. A taciturn chestnut mare stretched to work a tuft of grass. He got out and ran his hand over her coarse mane, across her withers, down the heavily hewn planks of the wagon she was harnessed to, a bald tire, and pulled a splinter out of his palm. Hesus rolled his eyes over the rusty roofscape pocked with satellite dishes and across the street the bell tower of a venerable church vacillated in the unfiltered light, its tall but narrow stained windows peering over a languid stone wall. A truck roared by, barely clearing an arching web of wires, leaving a melody in trembling leaves and limbs lining the asphalt. The spacing and setbacks of the houses and storefronts seemed random and arbitrary. Lunca wasn’t on his roadmap.
He crossed the road and entered the churchyard, testing a heavy wooden gate hanging from the unavailing wall, its sleepy hinges crying under his ministrations. White roses, purple-topped thistles and huge periwinkle lilacs formed a clumsy labyrinth amid lilting headstones and crosses, and the small church seemed burdened by its own shadow. Above the stained glass were bricked-in arrowloops and he came upon worn stone steps leading up to the narthex almost by accident, after circling the simple structure and not seeing any signs of additions or upgrades, just one slack wire intruding from the web at the street.
A metal postern gate led him into a park anchored by a larger-than-life bronze statue of a striding man, woman, girl, and boy triumphantly brandishing tools and farm implements. Bird droppings mitigated their victory. Hesus sat on a stone bench along the wall, listened to a woeful hymn emanating faintly from the church and didn’t hear any tires humming on the road. Shrikes in the nearby trees competed with the threadbare voices.
Hesus scraped the hard stone and brittle mortar of the wall with his fingernail. He’d documented the masonry technique on several Greek islands; four to six hundred years old. The bottom course was splashed with asphalt. A horse clopped by pulling a wagon. Behind the bouncing driver and his wife a boy dry-casted a cane fishing pole as if he could pull anything he wanted out of an imaginary ocean. Beside him grandmother and sister steadied plastic jugs of cola and wine. They all waved. Hesus pictured the boy grasping a composite rod with a shiny fast reel, the same gleeful expression, his whole family in a pickup truck part of the global economy, the church a tourist attraction. The village was perfect.
The church bell tolled, worshipers descended into the glorious sun and chatted about the churchyard and workers’ park. Horses whinnied to their friends as if there was no work to be done, clinking traces and tapping hooves, wagons rolling along the blacktop. A car whirred by dismissively. Shops opened.
Hesus followed a family into the Charivari where men sipped beers from thick, wide-mouthed glasses and the local plum brandy, called palinka, out of small, handleless ceramic cups. Everything in the narrow, rectangular room was sculpted out of the encompassing forest; the knotted creaking floorboards, six stalwart booths lining the walls, tree-ringed faces, five standing-height café tables, a crucifix hung next to a thick, square television, the food and body odor telling a story of life in its cicatrix texture.
One buxom woman, her face like the surface of a pond showered with a handful of pebbles, shuffled between the tables, a moving piece of the puzzle snuggled between the standing men. Hesus ordered beer, mittitei sausages, olives, and was pleased she understood his Romanian.
The men rolled cigarettes, not watching him, pressing their fingers on the abraded surfaces to retrieve stray bits of tobacco. A trilby was pushed so far back on one man’s head Hesus thought it must be bobby-pinned to his slick black hair. There were curled moustaches, fine dyed vests with gold and magenta embroidery along the button line, black pants wide at the hips and cuffs tucked into laced leather ankle-boots. Hesus pulled a small spiral out of his pocket and busied himself with notes.
The booths filled with families dressed for God and church. A woman couldn’t get a cell phone signal, so her young sons argued over who got to play a game on it. The Inn was lit by four dusty hanging lamps and three smoke-filmed windows. The television screamed a futbol game. Hesus counted forty-four people, with room for another six or seven before all the tables and booths were full, and felt like he was in a classic black-and-white movie ruined with color. An ancient stone hearth sat gratuitous in the muggy summer air.
A skinny boy followed the warp of the floorboards to a window where a plump girl with tousled brown hair and pretty, oval face washed dishes and poured beer out of a tap on the wall. The boy disappeared in and out of the smoke and the kitchen carrying trays with plates of gravy-smothered meat, boiled potatoes and vegetables, olives and almonds. The comfort tickled Hesus’s nostrils. All the lines in all the faces were a landscape reflecting the way sunlight and shadows are muted just so by these mountains, the sharing of this stream of water nourishing their homes, cooling the air, cleansing their bodies, as if no one ever needed anything beyond the horizon of their birth.
One stout man, in pressed blue suit and white pinstripes, wide ochre tie, and pocked cheeks, waved his trilby like a baton, leading his audience to laughter on cue. Hesus struggled to gather meaning from his dialect. The leader grasped the young waiter’s elbow and bent down to whisper into his ear, glancing at Hesus, who wasn’t observing as inconspicuously as he thought. Blush flooded the boy’s pale cheeks up to the fair hairline high on his forehead. A thin face above the audience showed more resignation than amusement, and he took Hesus’s interest as an invitation.
“Salut, allow me to buy you a beer. Ion Enesco.”
“Thanks. Hesus Kohleth.”
Ion offered knurled dorsal veins as much as palm. Their strong hands were different sizes.
“You are Italian?”
“American. You caught me. I am better with Italian.”
The leader bellowed and his audience laughed.
“What brings an American to Lunca?” Ion pulled a pouch of tobacco and a whittled pipe out of his coat and made an offering to Hesus.
Hesus shook his head. “Seemed like a good place to stop.”
“A wandering soul?” Ion was packing his pipe.
“I’m interested in old houses, forts, castles.”
“Looking for your home in Romania.”
“I have a friend who likes to rebuild historic structures.”
“It’s not your friend wants to move to Romania?”
“He has farms all over the world. Hires locals to run them.Could be good for the village. Likes to think he’s helping people realize their dreams.” Ion perfumed the space between the men with smoke as if he were seasoning a cast-iron skillet.
“Farms we have, but what we really need are jobs to keep young people from moving away.” Ion leaned over the small table. “We need a factory.”
Hesus sipped his beer and watched Ion search through pits for an olive.
“Some believe they are happy with the old ways. I don’t know if we’re ready, but we are a democracy now.”
“What’s so funny?” Hesus cocked his head towards the leader and his audience.
“Danut likes to be the big man. Don’t worry about it.”
“Am I doing something wrong?”
“Village gossip. What will you grow?”
“Grapes, for wine.”
The boy placed two heady beers and a small plate of pig snout and boiled cabbage between the men. His long, slender fingers reminded Hesus more of an artist than a farmer, and he wondered if the young man’s talents might be wasted here, like a flower that becomes a weed because it’s in a cabbage patch.
“To my new friend, Hesus.”
The two men raised the heavy glasses and smoky light formed a nimbus around Hesus’s head.
“Ion, they’re laughing at me, or you, or you and me, yes?”
“It’s nothing. Your wealthy friend, it’s not you?”
“I came back here for Nimrosio, not me. What do you do in such a beautiful village?”
Ion showed off his crow’s feet, adjusting his trilby for no apparent reason.
“I fix roofs and fences, help with the harvest, whatever I can do for money. Odd jobs here at the Inn for the Brancusi’s.”
“Have you always lived here?”
“Of course, with my parents and sisters. Years ago me and my brother, Eugene, God rest his soul, went to Moldavia to work at the factory.” Ion crossed himself and glanced at the ceiling.
“The communist years.”
“Our duty. In those days everyone had plenty of Lei, money. There wasn’t much to buy, but we didn’t need much.” Ion ran his thumb across his fingerprints as if he wasn’t certain they weren’t speaking the same language.
“Were you happy under communism?”
Ion stretched his neck over the small table. “Some people long for the old ways. After the factory closed me and my brother went to Transylvania to work on the oil platforms. Eugene was killed in an accident.”
Mrs. Brancusi delivered a tray of beers and palinka to the snickering table, half admonishing, half pleading with Danut to not disturb the other patrons.
“I’m sorry,” Hesus said.
“The old are dying and the young are leaving for Bucharest or the West, filled with dreams of money and freedom. The widow Vicarin’s daughter left a couple years ago, no older than Emil.” Ion pointed his glass at the young waiter before gulping down half his beer.
“Where is she now?”
“No one knows. The widow hardly comes out of her house. I keep up her house, work her garden. Her husband went to work in France after the revolution. He sent money for a while, but nothing for a long time now.” Ion’s foam filled moustache mimicked his lips. “Now, tell me about A-mer-i-ca.”
Hesus watched Danut’ eyes move from Hesus to his audience through an awkward silence, the way a psychiatrist might force a patient to talk about what up to now has been unspeakable. Danut took a large gulp of his beer, wiped his moustache on the pinstriped sleeve of his coat, returning Hesus’s stare, as if never blinking could imprison time indefinitely.
“Not so different than you, except I travel a lot. I work for non-profits, sometimes private companies.
“You don’t look like the Americans we see on satellite.”
“I was born in Texas, so I’m an American citizen, but my parents were Mexican.”
“Where’s your home?”
“Wherever I am is my home.”
Ion’s forehead wrinkled, he signaled to the girl through the window for more beers, smoke burning her eyes from the cigarette dangling between her lips. Hesus asked for the outhouse, the crowd waning with the sun, and slid some Lei under his empty glass. He tripped down the back steps, sending turkeys flapping away in a chorus of gobbles that struck him so funny he did it again just to hear them. Under the twilit stars he hadn’t noticed a man watching him and fiddling with a hose running down a well. It was one of those little shared embarrassments that creates good memories and has no ill effects. The man pointed to a long shed with a row of three wood half-doors.
Inside Hesus smelled urine soaked pine needles and lit a match to see two footboards nailed on either side of a hole. Laughter wafted from the Charivari like garbled digital lyrics.
Hesus had done his research and was confident there were areas suitable for a fine vineyard all over Romania, but the village seemed to him a missing link stumbling into the technological age. When he stepped back into the yard he found himself alone, the bell tower of the church looming in silhouette over the Charivari, stars twinkling in the blue to black sky. He walked over to the shadowy image of the well and the dark snaking ribbon of leaky hose muddying the earth. Hesus peered into the chilly emptiness, cold bricks gritty and wet on his palms, the dull hum of a pump echoing in his ears. He gripped the hose loosely, measuring its inefficiency, before dancing through throaty gobbles and garbled laughter on his way to another beer.
Danut’s table was swaying and singing:
Look at the man who has everything; How he learns to be a fool
Look at the man who keeps everything; How he hordes his arrogance
At the end of the refrain everyone at the table broke out in laughter.
“What’s the joke? Come on, I’m very difficult to offend,” Hesus asked Ion.
“The song is from an old Gyspy tale. I apologize for my neighbors.” Ion bowed, his arm outstretched almost to the floor in supplication.
“How did I offend? Enlighten me so I may correct my deficiencies and beg forgiveness for my offences.” Hesus imitated Ion’s supplication.
The pretty girl and young man watched Hesus from the kitchen window. Hesus felt in control, as if he could observe everyone in the Charivari simultaneously.
Danut raised his voice and said to his audience, “There is this man who has everything. The Gypsies clean the man’s stable and cook his meals for a pittance, and for years the man thinks he is being generous and noble. Poor Gypsies, he thinks, what were their lives before I came along? The man eats bland food and never indulges in wine, afraid if the Gypsies realize the extent of his riches they’ll demand more for their work. He thinks they don’t see him when, while in their camp a short distance away, singing and dancing and playing music, bouncing their grandchildren on their knees, gorging on spicy food, drinking wine and making love, the man sneaks away to dig up his lockbox and pray over his money. The man doesn’t understand the Gypsies could steal the money a thousand times over, that in fact they have stolen some of it, but just what they need to eat and drink and laugh and sing and play and make love. Every night the Gypsies serenade the man, but he never takes the time to understand them.”
“Danut says Americans are the same as the man,” Ion explained. “They act like conquerors, but every peasant knows the conqueror loses his soul to those he thinks he conquers. Look at us.” Ion waved his arm to no one and everyone. “The Romans, the Huns, Turks, Hungarians, Russians; they all tried, and now Capitalists. Yet we’re still the same.”
“Of course,” Hesus laughed out loud, felt the young man and pretty girl watching him, and threw his head back. “You’ve had nothing but trouble from outsiders like me.”
“He’s looking for his shadow at noon,” Danut said.
“Laugh at me, I don’t blame you.” Hesus leaned over the table so Ion could hear over the laughter. “Not all Americans agree with what its government does, any more than everyone here wants to go back to communism. I haven’t even been in America or voted for years. You can’t win a people over by invading them.”
Ion gaveled his pipe on the table, quieting the room. He began in the local dialect, hesitated, then in Romanian, said, “Do you all think you know more about democracy than an American? Do you think just because Hesus is American he wants to invade us?”
Danut dragged a heavy wood chair to his table and motioned for Hesus to sit, as if summoning him to the witness stand. Hesus raised his right hand and signaled the bright boy to bring a round of drinks.
“Why do you want to control how everyone should live?” Danut began.
“I’m not the American government….”
“But you can vote!” A dark haired woman with big black eyes in a sleek yellow dress couldn’t help herself. Danut’s stubby hand held Hesus’s left wrist on the table.
“That doesn’t make me responsible.”
“You force your ways on everyone,” Stephania, Danut’s wife, said.
“He’ll do anything for oil,” a skeptical man added.
“I think everyone should be able to do what he or she wants,” Hesus said.
“You can’t do whatever you want just because you’re free,” Danut replied.
“As long as I’m not hurting anyone.”
“I want to go to America,” said the skeptic.
It occurred to Hesus the Inn was living up to its name.
“But people are always going to be hurt,” Stephania insisted.
“I’m not a politician.”
“Take the man at his word,” Ion tried to interject amidst all the voices.
“All Americans are godless,” the sleek woman in the yellow dress said.
“’We the people’ are the government!” Danut yelled.
“There are all kinds of different people in America,” Hesus said softly.
“Everyone is free in America.”
They drove like a herd through two more rounds.
Finally Danut stood up, leaned back and lowered his palms, as if preparing the Charivari for a coda. He raised his glass and stared for a long moment into Hesus’s true-black eyes.
“You’re an imperialist dreamer, Hesus. What you say means nothing; it’s what you do that matters.”
Everyone stood and looked at Hesus, nodding their heads, and toasted their neighbors. Ion signaled Mrs. Brancusi for another round. Finally, unable to measure the beers, olives, bread, and goat cheese, Danut began cheek kisses and bear hugs, saving Hesus for last. Everyone followed suit, then Ion pressed a heavy key into Hesus’s hand and pointed up a set of stairs next to the kitchen.
From the top of the stairs Hesus turned to see Anna Brancusi bolting the heavy wood door and Emil clearing the night’s detritus. Hesus admired his grace and dexterity, turned down the hall, managed to fit the skeleton key in the lock and plunked down on the thin mattress.