The Question of Bruno (Aleksandar Hemon)

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  The Red Scarf

As soon as Pronek stepped out of the plane (an exhausted steward, crumpled and hoary, beamed an "Auf Wiedersehen" at him), he realized that he had left his red wool scarf in the luggage compartment, with a mustard stain from the Vienna airport cafe. He contemplated going back to fetch it, but the relentless piston of his fellow pilgrims pushed him through the mazy tunnel, until he saw a line of booths echoing one another, with uniformed officers lodged in them reading little passport-books, as sundry passengers waited obediently behind a thick yellow line on the floor. There was a man holding a sign with Pronek's name misspelled on it (Proniek), monitoring the throng winding between black ribbons, as if the man were choosing a person to attach the name to. Pronek walked up to him and said: "I am that person." "Oh, you are," the man said. "Welcome to the States."

"Thank you," Pronek said. "Thank you very much."

The man led him past the passels of people clutching passports, pushing their tumescent handbags with their feet. "We don't have to wait," he said, nodding at Pronek for some reason, as if conveying a secret message. "You're our guest."

"Thank you!" Pronek said.

The man took him up to the booth filled to the glass-pane brim with a gigantic man. Had someone abruptly opened the door of his booth, his flesh would have oozed out slowly, Pronek thought, like runny dough.

"Hi, Wyatt!" said Pronek's guide.

"Hi, Virgil!" said the dough man.

"He's our guest!" said Virgil.

"How're you doin' buddy?" said the dough man. He was mustached, and suddenly Pronek realized that he resembled the fat detective with a loose tie and an unbuttoned shirt from an American TV show.

"I'm very well, sir, I thank you very much," Pronek said.

"Wha're you goin' to do here, buddy?"

"I do not know right now, sir. Travel. I think they have program for me."

"I'm sure they do," he said, flipping through Pronek's red Yugoslav passport, as if it were a gooey smut magazine. Then he grabbed a stamp and violently slammed it against a passport page and said: "You have a hell of a time, y' hear now, buddy."

"I will, sir. Thank you very much."

What we have just seen is Jozef Pronek entering the United States of America. It was January 26, 1992. Once he found himself on this side, he didn't feel anything different. He knew full well, however, he couldn't go back to retrieve his red scarf with the yellow mustard stain.

Virgil began explaining to Pronek how to get on the plane to Washington DC, but Pronek wasn't really listening, for Virgil's spectacular head suddenly became visible to him. He saw the valley of baldness between the two tufts of hair, stretching away in horror from the emerging globe. The skin of Virgil's face was inscribed with an intricate network of blood-vessels, like river systems on a map, with two crimson deltas around his nostrils. Hair was peering out of his nose, swaying almost imperceptibly, as if a couple of centipedes were stuck in his nostrils, hopelessly moving their little legs. Pronek didn't know what Virgil was saying, but still kept saying: "I know. I know." Then Virgil generously shook Pronek's hand and said: "We're so happy to have you here." What could Pronek say? He said: "Thank you."

He exchanged money with a listless carbuncular teenager behind a thick glass pane, and obediently sat down at a bar that invited him with a glaring neon-sign: "Have a drink with us." He was reading dollar bills ("In God we trust.") when the waitress said: "They're pretty green, ahn't they? Wha' canna gechou, honey?"

"Beer," Pronek said.

"What kinda beer? This is not Russia, hun, we got all kindsa beer. We got Michelob, Milleh, Milleh Light, Milleh Genuine Draft, Bud, Bud Light, Bud Ice. Wha'ever you want."

She brought him a Bud (Light) and asked: "What's your team in the Superbawl?"

"I don't know."

"I'm a Buffalo girl. I'm just gonna die if the Bills lose again."

"I hope they won't," he said.

"They better not," she said. "Or I be real mad."

All the TVs in the bar were on, but the images were distorted. The square heads of two toupeed men talking were winding upward like smoke, then they would straighten up, and Pronek could see them grinning at their microphones, as if they were delectable lollipops, then they would twist again. He thought, for a moment, that his eyes were not adjusted to the ways in which images were transmitted in this country. He remembered that dogs saw everything differently from people and that everything looked dim to them. Not to mention bats, which couldn't even see a thing, but flew around, bumping into telephone poles, with something like a sonar in their heads, which meant that they understood only echoes.

This is the kind of profitless thought that Pronek frequently had.

Pronek saw an elderly couple sitting down under one of the TVs. The man had wrinkles emerging, like rays, from the corners of his eyes, and a Redskins hat. The woman had puffed up hair, and she looked a lot like the Washington on the one-dollar bill. A sign behind their backs said "Smoking Section." They sat silent; their gazes, perpendicular to each other, converged over the tin ashtray in the center of the table. The waitress ("I'm Grace," she said. "How's everything?") brought them two Miller Lights, but they didn't touch them. Instead, the man took a black book out of his worn-out canvass handbag and spread it between the two sweating bottles. Then they read it together, their heads nearly touching, the man's left hand heaped upon the woman's right hand, like a frog upon a frog making love. They started weeping, squeezing each other's hands so hard that Pronek could see the woman's finger tips reddening, while her pink nails seemed to be stretching out.

This was, for Pronek, the first in the series of what we normally call culture shocks.

He roved all over the airport, imagining that it had the shape of John Kennedy's supine body, with his legs and arms outstretched, and leech-like airplanes sucking its toes and fingers. He imagined traveling through Kennedy's digestive system, swimming in a bubbling river of acid, like bacteria, and ending up in his gurgling kidney-bathroom. He stepped out of the airport through one of JFK's nostrils, in front of which there were cabs lined up like a thin mustache.

Finally, he joined the line of people trickling into the tunnel to the Washington DC plane. "How are you today?" said a steward, not bothering to hear the answer. Pronek had a window seat, and a man who looked as if he had just been attached to an air-compressor, like a balloon, sat next to him--the man was so fat that he occupied two seats and had to buckle his left thigh.

"Can't believe I am missing the Super Bowl," the man said and exhaled. "I went to every goddamn Redskins game this year and I had to miss the biggie. The fucking biggie. Are you a Redskins fan?"

"I'm afraid I don't even know rules of that game."

"Ah, you're a foreigner!" he triumphantly exclaimed and exhaled again. "What do you think of America? Isn't it the greatest country on earth?"

"I'm afraid I don't know yet. I just arrived."

"It's great. People are great. Freedom, all that. Best in the world," he concluded the conversation with an authoritative head twitch, and opened a book entitled "Seven Spiritual Laws of Growth." Pronek looked out at the aluminum sternness of the wing, his body twisted, his cheek against the seat texture, whose chaffing reminded him of his red scarf, and then he fell asleep, until the ascendance of his guts to his throat, as the plane was taking off, woke him up.


Pronek hated his neck, because it always got stiff and became a knot of thick sinews. He would keep pressing them, which would just produce more and more pain, while the sinews would wiggle under his fingers, as hard as steel cables. If he ever were to be decapitated, he thought, the executioner would be in danger, for the ax would probably bounce back and split the poor fellow's head like a watermelon. They would have to soak his neck in acid for a week or so, in order to soften the steely sinews, and then cut off his head.

Pronek and his umbrous co-passengers descended upon Washington, and he had to turn his whole body to look through the window at the feeble capital lights, "like moribund embers under the ashes of a cloudy night" (this was Pronek's thought at the moment, and we must concede it is rather nice.) The flight attendant sneaked from somewhere behind Pronek's back and startled him, shoving his face in the crevice between the fat man's chest and the seat in front of him, and asking: "Can I get you another beer, sir?" Pronek turned his whole body--the sinews resisting painfully--like a hand-puppet, towards the attendant and allowed him to provide more helpful service. The attendant seemed to be paid per smile and had the tan of an impeccably baked chicken.

Pronek was pushed into the airport building by the piston of his fellow-pilgrims, as described before.

First the gigantic tip of a nipple on a stick started flashing and hooting, than the empty carrousel started revolving. Bulky bags and square suitcases began dropping out from behind the black curtain, then went--wooo!--down the slide into the immutability of the carrousel's revolution. Pronek's faceless co-passangers swarmed around the carrousel, as if they were bacteria at the bottom of a stomach, and the food to be digested was just being sent from the oral department. Pronek's bag was lost. He stared at the empty carousel, which revolved meaninglessly until it stopped to shine in conspicuous silence. Pronek had only a handbag packed with books and duty-free shop catalogs, plus a piece of three-day-old bourek, designed by his mother to sustain him on the trip, which was now--we can be sure of that--breeding all kinds of belligerent Balkan microorganisms.

Behind a frail, black and long, ribbon, there stood a man with Pronek's name (misspelled as "Pronak"), followed by a question mark. The man held it out just above his pelvis, with the lower edge cutting gently into the palms of his hands, so Pronek thought that his name had been taken away from him and given to this man, who was obviously an honest, hard-working, disciplined individual. The man shook Pronek's flaccid hand hesitantly, as if afraid that the sign might be taken away from him.

The man welcomed Pronek and asked about the trip with fake--but clearly polite--interest. "It was like Marlow's journey to see Kurtz," Pronek said. "Wow!" said the man, doubtless unaware of what Pronek was talking about--for which he shouldn't be blamed. The man had dark, short hair, retreating in disarray from his forehead, with ashen smudges behind his ears. He kindly helped Pronek inquire about the luggage, but to no avail.

Outside, it was snowing relentlessly, as if the ireful God was tearing up down pillows in the heavens. The man drove through the blindingly white maze of the blizzard. He pointed at objects and buildings, which kept popping out of tumultuous snow like jacks-in-the-box: a gigantic toothpick, lit from below, as if kneeling worshippers were pointing flashlights at its pinnacle; a series of buildings that Pronek decided to describe in future conversations with whomever was interested in his US impressions as built in a neo-Nazi, neo-classical, neo-fluffy style (which is not entirely justified, we believe).

"And this is the White House," the man said, exultantly.

"I always wandered," Pronek said, incorrectly. "Why it is called White House? Do you have to be white to live there?"

The man did not find it amusing, so he said: "No, it is because it is made of white marble."

Pronek's neck was stiffer than ever, at this point practically petrified, so he turned his whole body towards the man and put his left hand on the head-recliner behind the man's nape, which shamelessly sported tufts of unruly hair. The man glanced at Pronek's hand, as if afraid that it might choke him.

"Did they use slaves to build it?"

"I don't know, but I don't believe so."

The man's name was Simon. They drove in silence, as the storm was subsiding. By the time they got to the hotel, leafy snowflakes were butterflying, taking a break after a hard day's work. Simon complimented Pronek's English, and--having established a bond, presumably--informed him that the Redskins had won. "I barely know rules," Pronek retorted. "It's a great game," Simon said, and then invited him to his home in Falls Orchard, Virginia, to meet his wife, Gretchen, and their four daughters. Pronek readily accepted the invitation, although he knew very well that he would never see Simon again.

The hotel was a Quality Inn.

Pronek would remember--to this day--the room at the Quality Inn with eerie clarity: there was a large double bed in a green cape staring at the ceiling with its pillow-eyes; a dark TV facing the bed patiently, like a dog waiting for a treat; an ascetic chair, opening its wooden arms in invitation to a bland desk; an umbrellaed lamp, casting its light shyly on the writing surface; a heavy, matronly peach-colored curtain, behind which there was a large window with a generous vista of an endless wall. The bathroom was immaculately clean, with towels layered upon each other, resembling a snow cube. Pronek kept flushing the scintillating toilet, watching with amazement (he had an entirely different concept of the toilet bowl than we do) how the water at the bottom was enthusiastically slurped in, only to rise, with liquid cocksureness, back to the original level. There were two rubber footprints stuck to the bottom of the bathtub and a handlebar sticking out of the wall. So Pronek cautiously let the water run, stepped onto the rubber footprints, which matched his feet exactly, and grasped the handlebar, but nothing happened.

We cannot be entirely sure what it was that he expected to happen.

He washed his pale-blue underwear and the exhausted collar of his rather unseemly flannel shirt, and then stretched them across the chair. He thrust himself upon the bed, which routinely creaked, and lay naked, trying unsuccessfully to calculate the time difference between Washington and Sarajevo (six hours), until he fell asleep.

He woke up and didn't know where he was or who he was, but then he saw his underwear spreading its pale-blue wings across the chair, providing clear evidence of his existence prior to that moment. He got up, liberated the window from the curtain's oppression, and saw that it was daytime, because some confused light clambered down the wall, and waited outside the window to be let in and scurry to the dark corners. He was delighted with the whole poetic-morning set-up, until he found out that his underwear was still moist.

He did not hear the maid because he was drying his pants with a hair-dryer, which he discovered in the holster, like a concealed revolver, by the mirror. She boldly walked in and saw him clutching his underwear with his left hand and pressing the hair-dryer's muzzle into its face, as if torturing it to confess. We should point out that he was butt-naked and was brandishing a regular morning erection. Pronek and the maid--a slim young woman with a paper tiara on her head--were locked together in a moment of helpless embarrassment, and then Pronek slowly closed the door. He sat on the toilet seat, thinking about the loss of his suitcases, which must have been freezing somewhere up in the heavens, stacked up, with all the other completely foreign and unfamiliar suitcases, in a cavernous underbelly of a plane, heading away, away from him. When he finally put on his broken-down shorts and mustered up enough audacity to face the maid, she was gone. His bed was all straightened up, and there was a piece of red heart-shaped candy on the pillow. Pronek imagined having a passionate affair with the maid, who really was a daughter of a New York billionare, trying to lead an independent, dignified life and get on with her painting career. He could see himself moving back to New York with her; he would live in a shabby, but homey, apartment in Greenich Village and support her, making love to her in saxophone slow-motion, kissing her graceful hands and dainty cheeks stained with vivid colors.

Simon waited for him at the reception desk, except that he was not Simon, but someone else who looked like Simon, save for the thick glasses and a torus of fat resting on his hips and pelvis. He serenely informed Pronek that he hoped Pronek had slept well, and that Pronek's luggage had been found in Pensacola, Florida. They drove past the same monuments and buildings, in front of which there were insectile machines, plowing away lumps of snow. They (Pronek and Simon no. 2) stopped in front of a large mansion hiding behind a marble-white set of pillars, akin to Gargantuan prison bars. On the lawn, covered with whipped-creamy snow, there was a sign with an eagle spreading its awesome wings, frowning away from the house, as if pissed off at the inhabitants. They walked into a large hall and there was a uniformed guard under a colorful picture of the uncomfortably smirking George Bush.

"Hi, George!" said Pronek's escort.

"Hi, Doc!" said the guard, who stood with his legs spread, and his hands wedged authoritatively in his armpits. Doc disappeared into the office maze behind George's back. George ordered Pronek to wait in the hall, whose walls were covered with paintings of stuck-up men, their cheeks slightly turgid, as if their oral caverns were full of smoke they didn't dare exhale. The same pissed eagle, Pronek noticed, was stretched flatly across the floor, and the ceiling was so high that "the eye struggled in vain to reach the remoter angles," to quote one of our great writers. The sign propped on a scrawny wooden stand said: "No Concealed Weapons." It was cold, so Pronek sat in an armchair, with his hands deep in his pockets, under the gaze of a man with puckered lips and eyebrows in the shape of a distant seagull. Pronek played with marbles, which still lay in transoceanic hiatus at the bottom of his coat pockets, revolving them around each other. Then--to our surprise--a man sped out from behind George's back with his right hand extended in front of him, and a genuinely counterfeit smile. As Pronek was pulling his hand out, he said: "Welcome!" and the marbles, finally freed from lint chains, leapt out of the pocket and began bouncing away from each other, cackling in their sudden liberty. He could still hear the echoes of the runaway marbles from distant corners, when the man asked Pronek: "So, how do you like our capital?"

"I don't know," Pronek said sheepishly. "I just arrived."

"You'll love it!" the man exclaimed. "It's great."

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Excerpted from The Question of Bruno by Aleksandar Hemon. Copyright © 2000 by Aleksandar Hemon. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.