The Consequences of Passing Up Minsk
Transcript of the exchange between Todd Fullmer and his editor:
Slovenia’s got one!
So I’m paying for a story about dead journalists in Minsk. What’s the matter, are you afraid you’ll become one of them?
Don’t insult me—besides, that’s not such a bad motive for avoiding Minsk, not that there aren’t plenty of others. No, listen M_______, this Slovene thing is perfect for us. Nobody knows about it, the victim was a colorful guy—he went around with a monkey on his shoulder, for christs’ sake—the story, I mean the cover up, is obviously bogus…the whole thing—it’s virgin territory.
Virginity isn’t news. Whores are news. Lukashenko’s a whore, so forget this Slovak thing and get up there now.
Slovene, not Slovak.
Fast, slow, Czech, Moldovan, I don’t give a shit. You’re not yet bigger than this magazine and while I’m still editor you will go where I send you.
I’m not saying I won’t go. I’m saying I’ll stop in Slovenia for a while on the way.
No, you’ll stop in Slovojvodina after you’ve reported from Minsk.
Look, M_________, Lukashenko will be killing journalists for the next ten years. What’s the hurry? Arguably, the longer I wait, the more there will be to report.
I’m not going to argue anymore. Get your ass to Minsk or you’ll find yourself working at the New York Times!
Don’t get nasty with me. How many times have you followed my hunches and it turned out I got a scoop. Like with Yushchenko.
You call that a scoop?
Given that the story was unscoopable, I call it a fucking miracle that sold magazines.
We sold more magazines when you wrote about why you weren’t writing about Lady Die.
That was because of the ingenuity of your typesetter or whatever they’re called these days.
Still, it was brilliant and it sold magazines. Yushchenko didn’t sell magazines, not like we expect your articles to.
You ever eat a goldfish?
What about a fresh eyeball? They say Ante Pavelić popped them like olives.
What are you getting at?
Don’t demean my work. No way, no fucking way you would have touched that face.
Ukraine is one of those restless countries that moves around now and then, hides, moves again, emerges fresh and strong, kills some enemies within, some without, moves around a little more, hides again, emerges fresh and strong and chaotic, kills mostly within but occasionally by rocket without. For some, such a country is a refreshing change. Aren’t you a little bored with, say, the borders of the United States? How long has it been since they changed? On the other hand, for the people in a city like, say, L’viv, change can be disorienting. One day it’s Lvov and it’s Polish, next day it’s got an apostrophe and it’s Ukrainian. Even central Ukraine can be fickle. One day it’s a breadbasket, next day a slaughterhouse; or a famine-riddled grim place where no one vacations—all that bread and people dying of hunger…it can be very confusing. Then there’s the rain: one day water, next day acid (as they say). One day an historic city of the Pripet Marshes is bustling, next day a ghost town. And of course there are the people. Every country is heterogeneous by nature piled upon nature. So Ukraine had all these Jews and now where are they? In Pinsk, you say? Maybe, but they lost Pinsk to Belarus, which had to have Minsk, and if you’ve got Minsk and a loose Pinsk, the logic of politicals and rhymes says you needs to combines. You may not believe it but there are people on this Earth who are missing their Pinsk.
O sad Ukraine
O sad Ukraine
You lost so much and what did you gain?
And what didn’t you lose? Moskva, Moscow, Muskovy. The smarmy grappler Putin. Putting his nose in where he just can’t get that it doesn’t belong. Can’t he tell a Lukashenko from a Yushchenko? Not at first, but then western media broadcast Yushchenko’s handsome grass roots face all over the tubes all over the world and next thing you know Ukraine has a fifty fifty itch for ‘freedom’. Stop laughing. Death threats delivered against Yushchenko, Yushchenko meets secret agents, ‘ex’-KGB, has a bowl of soup and his dioxin level multiplies by thousands. What is dioxin? Ask some Vietnamese peasants. The point is, Yushchenko developed a mysterious illness that should have killed him (What the fuck do we have to do, for Val’s sake!). The problem for Todd Fullmer was that the media was crawling all over the Yushchenko story like maggots in a rotting gut before the poisoning. So when he got poisoned, there was no original angle, no uncovered angle, no scoop, for Todd Fullmer and PS. Doctors in Vienna said we don’t know what’s wrong, but there’s hardly an organ in his body that isn’t deformed, swollen, and crawling with something not maggots. Reporters were on the thing day and night for months. Yushchenko put on a brave face, but it was a mask, a distortion of his own face, mislabeled pocked by a baffled press. Pitted, some said. As if burned, said others. It had turned gray, sometimes shading to Pripet green, boils gaping with enlarged pores. It looked like Chernobyl. It looked like the kind of thing that you expect will rub off on you if you touch it.
If you touch it…if you touch it…if you touch it! That’s the scoop. Todd Fullmer would be the only reporter to actually touch it.
As things turned out, Todd had no problem at all. Yushchenko advertised his grotesque face, he wanted all Ukrainians to know what the old guard had done and would continue to do—my face is Ukraine, he said—if he weren’t elected. Ukraine needed new blood, no matter the dioxin level. Nervously, Todd Fullmer visited Kiev. Nervous because it’s hard to believe how close the capitol is to Chernobyl (I’d have let Belarus have Chernobyl and moved the capitol to the Crimea, Todd wrote). He got an appointment with Yushchenko, brought along a photographer, told Yushchenko straight out he just wanted to touch his face, Yushchenko thought it was a good idea, Todd reached, pulled his arm back, gathered courage, reached again and…Yuk! It wasn’t one of those things that looks like it will rub off on you if you touch it—it did rub off. Slime. If you’ve ever picked up a Mediterranean snail, the kind with beautiful racing stripes on it, which you can only see when it’s crossing the street looking for its shell, dropped it off on the other side of the street only to find out that fifty percent of the snails body weight is slime on your hand that doesnotwashoff—it has to be scrubbed and scraped and washed over and over again for at least an hour—well, that was what it was like touching Yushchenko’s face, except the slime had that same ashen color…
Birdy Num Num
“Birdy num num.”
“Birdy num num.”
Despite the fact that they had met more than a dozen times, source Z insisted on Beograd rules, as he called it, which meant if it was safe to talk they began with the above exchange. Todd Fullmer never knew when it wasn’t safe.
They met in the coffee shop of the Hotel Balkan, heedless of the proximity—next table, window chair, stirring coffee, maybe the same one as last time herein—of a mustached man with what some might call a stony gaze, a man known as, you got it, Mandrake Pizdamonavić.
Z was a cherub. A full grown man, perhaps, but nonetheless a cherub, gray curly hair, but the gray curly hair of a cherub. He had little fleshy lips and gave off the air of one insatiably attracted to sweets, and for whom the entire world was coated in sugar. He was also an electronic genius and refused to speak with Todd Fullmer before displaying his latest toy or invention.
“See here,” he said, setting a 60s-era Ford Sedan the size of a match box on the table.
“Watch,” he said. Fullmer didn’t see any movement on the part of Z, yet the car rolled up to him, turned around and opened its trunk.
“Okay, lean forward and whisper into the boot.”
Todd leaned forward, and whispered toward the toy car, “Ivan Kramberger.”
Immediately, the trunk slammed—relatively—shut, and the car dashed across the table to Z, again without any discernible movements made by Z. When the car reached the end of the table it stopped, the hood flipped open, and it said “Ivan Kramberger,” barely louder than Todd Fullmer had.
Z leaned down and the car turned around and showed its open trunk while shutting its hood.
“What about him?” Z whispered.
The car whizzed over to Todd Fullmer.
“Anything,” Todd said to the trunk after it burped up Z’s question.
Back at station Z, the car opened its hood, repeated “Anything,” and turned around, closing its hood and opening its trunk.
“I don’t know much, but I’m glad that’s your question because I hadn’t heard of any assassinations in these parts and your contact made me a little suspicious. I even thought it might not be you…”
Todd noticed a man at the table behind theirs, a mustached man with a stony gaze, craning as if to try to hear what Z was telling the car.
“…Anyway, Kramberger was killed because he was too popular for someone who had just returned to the country and was saying a bunch of sensible things, all of them honest, even the hare-brained ones. You see, Kučan and company over-estimated their roles as heroes of the Slovene freedom movement and underestimate their reek of Beograd to the Slovene people. Kramberger either figured this out or knew it intuitively. He got around 20% of the vote representing the Homeland Peasant Party, a brilliant name, both humble and subtly reminiscent of the Home Guard, so it appealed to both reactionaries and little folk…and maybe to the reds who didn’t really mind a free Slovenia but didn’t want it to be reactionary. But back to that percentage, the thing is that the 20% could easily have grown. Kramberger had all the makings of a populist, a demagogue, or both. I believe the Kučani got the idea, or the information, that the number was climbing and climbing fast. So they hired a patsy who was paid to take the rap and a professional marksman to gun him down. Who actually hired him? Someone of Kučani interests, which covers a wide range that includes Kučan and his ilk, the business interests that exploited the new market as rapidly as possible, even the Germans, even a mafia. Who actually did it? Could have been anyone, anyone who could shoot a rifle. Other than that I couldn’t say. Look outside, look at that guy, look at the guy at the table behind me—could have been anybody.”
The car stalled on the way over to Todd, and whether or not this is related, it is related here—Z blinked his right eye rapidly about ten times and the car resumed its tête-à-tête, releasing Z’s speech to Todd, turning, receiving Todd’s “Thanks,” and returning to the garage—Z’s pocket.
“Por nada, hombre,” Z said rising. “Have a very nice stay in Beograd.”
As they parted, Todd Fullmer detected no communication of any kind between source Z and anyone else inside or outside the Hotel Balkan, not even anyone at a nearby table, not even anyone at the very next table. In fact, Fullmer and source Z did not actually separate until they were outside and they turned their separate ways, Fullmer toward Kalemegdan and source Z toward Nova Beograd.
Editor’s note: I started The Collidescope so that I could give a home to work that is true to itself rather than diluted by the artless concerns of marketing and audience pandering. The aesthetic of the journal reflects my own tastes, of course: writing that tinkers with the mechanics of language, that itemizes etymology, orchestrates melody, writing that is logistically illogical and acts as the ouija board of voiceless dreams. Rick Harsch’s writing embodies all this and more. I never thought that I’d be serializing an amazing novel from an amazing author. I’m both honored and excited. So dear readers, be sure to bookmark The Collidescope and check back every Sunday for new installments of Kramberger with Monkey: A Comedy of Assassination by Rick Harsch.
Rick Harsch hit the literary scene in 1997 with his cult classic The Driftless Zone, which was followed by Billy Verite and Sleep of the Aborigines (all by Steerforth Press) soon after to form The Driftless Trilogy. Harsch migrated to the Slovene coastal city of Izola in 2001, just as the Driftless books were published in French translation by a French publisher that went out of business a few years later. Rick is also the author of Arjun and the Good Snake (2011, Amalietti & Amalietti), Wandering Stone: the Streets of Old Izola (2017, Mandrac Press), Voices After Evelyn (2018, Maintenance Ends Press), Skulls of Istria (2018, River Boat Books), The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas (2019, River Boat Books) and Walk Like a Duck: A Season of Little League Baseball in Italy (2019, River Boat Books). Rick currently lives in Izola still with his wife and two children.