A Solitary Traveler
A pig led by a skinhead emerged from the nighttime fog. Shirting was fidgeting with his glasses, which were cumbersome, black, and worn without a trace of irony, when the skin spoke to him in Czech. To Shirting the pair resembled a comic book superhero and insouciant sidekick. He merely shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
“Sprichst du Deutsch? Deutsch?” the skin said in German. Shirting was unsure if he was being slighted. He had seen such characters as this on talk TV and was torn between putting the fascistically apparelled youngster in his place and making a good first impression; it was, after all, his first spontaneous encounter with a local.
“I hate to disappoint you, but my allegiance lies elsewhere.”
The blank look on the skin’s face prompted him to continue: “Though it is quite possible that I share a love of efficiency with the folk of your beloved Vaterland. One time, at Capo Coffee Family, I singlehandedly managed the espresso machine during the morning rush. Not an easy operation, what with the countless flavor options offered by any Capo’s outlet. I only mention this to demonstrate that there is always a bit of common ground between people, if they only look for it.”
The skin glanced between Shirting and his pig, which was rooting around Shirting’s Buster Browns. He then leaned forward, assuming the confidential mien of a black marketeer. “Germany,” he said in barely accented English, “does not exist. It is nothing but a state of mind, a shunyala, as the mystics say.” At this point, Shirting felt the pig’s damp snout probe his bare skin, having nuzzled its way between his sock and pant leg. He jumped back in revulsion.
“Get that thing away from me, the dastardly beast. It downright reeks of the slop and disease!” He glared at the skinhead, who appeared not to hear his appeal. Shirting’s indignation mounted as he perceived something incongruent about the boy’s appearance.
“Is that a Star of David you are wearing?” he asked. “Some of our most adamant customers at Capo Coffee Family were of Jewish persuasion. I won’t hear a word against them,” he added preemptively.
“Jews, as you call them, do not exist either,” the skin said, finally pulling the pig off Shirting by its tail. “Yin to the antimatter yang of the German state.” The furrows in the youth’s brow, so deep they might have been imprinted with a pie cutter, manifested the seriousness of his convictions.
“Your sentiments reek of . . .”
“Neo Mysticism?” the skin said hopefully.
“Garlic . . . mostly garlic.”
Shirting could see that he was dealing with a madman, made all the more dangerous by his command of the English language. Not that Shirting was unaccustomed to the imbalanced. The marketing at Capo Coffee, the premium coffee chain he had until recently worked at, was very much geared toward affecting an atmosphere of calm in which customers could loiter and indulge themselves—needless to say, a veritable outpatient services office for needy and hysterical personalities. Shirting reflexively reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a free drink coupon, offering it forth in hopes of quelling any anxiety his outburst had provoked. The skin accepted the ticket, a glossy paper-plastic blend decorated like a comic dollar bill, with an illustration of an Al Capone-like gangster in the oval frame, pinching a tiny espresso cup in his fingers and winking confidentially.
“It’s for a Capone’cino, like a Cappuccino, only with more muscle. For twenty cents extra you can get a Lucky Latte-ano, but the Capone’cino is the flagship drink, so that’s what
“I can see you are one with us,” the skin said, accepting the offer. He then caught Shirting off-guard by spinning around on one foot—a revolution that, when complete, revealed him to be adorned with a small accordion. Had it been hanging off his back all the while? Shirting would be hard pressed to deny that the instrument was not produced from thin air.
“Ein, Zwei, Drei—” the skin chanted before breaking into a klezmer-embellished riff. The music’s mystical qualities warmed Shirting to his new acquaintance. It was not long before, on that first summer night in Prague, that John Shirting had danced a jig, the moves of which were so categorically Shirting: arms flailing out in front of him like a mod zombie, legs kicking, as though he were perpetually falling backwards off a cliff. He felt under a spell and unable to resist, the skin having so thoroughly infected him with his own unselfconscious crunching of those wheezing bellows. For how long he was entranced he could not ascertain, nor would he be able to verify that the pig too was not up on its hind legs enjoying a frolic of its own, or perhaps mocking Shirting’s spasmodic steps.
“Yours is a fine world music, a fine world music,” the winded traveler would say, once the tune had ceased, his free will regained. “I apologize if we got off on the wrong foot, but as a city dweller I am not accustomed to livestock and their affections.” Shirting reached down and held his finger out for the pig to sniff. When he looked up again, he discovered the skin was now offering a snow globe to him in his outstretched palm. Illuminated under the night sky, he could see the cityscape of Prague inside the small glass dome. The skin suddenly withdrew the snow globe and shook it. Shirting felt immediately dizzy, as though he himself had been shaken, and—if only for a moment—the cityscape of Prague somehow bled into his own porous flesh.
Once he steadied himself, he decided it was time to sally on. Shirting waved a salutation to the skin. In return the skin held up his arm in a “heil” salute. Shirting, in a surge of optimism and companionship, mistook this gesture for a high-five, and slapped the skin’s hand with his own.
“Shalom,” the skin said. Shirting smiled exuberantly. “Shalom,” the skin repeated, walking backward, away from Shirting before disappearing, as he would later note in his travel journal, “cinematically” into the fog. The pig too would follow its master into the cover of night, but not before making three revolutions around Shirting as though he were a pylon on some swine obstacle course. The American looked after them with longing. Though they had treated him shortly, Shirting harbored no malice. A solitary traveler, he felt quite alone in that unknown city and had been grateful for the company.
Excerpted from Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Cafe by M. Henderson Ellis. Copyright © 2013 by M. Henderson Ellis. Excerpted by permission of New Europe Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.