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Food for the People
a short story by Jiri Kajane
Fiction Attic Press is pleased to present the first new Jiri Kajane story in a quarter century, “Food for the People.” If you enjoy this story, you may also enjoy Winter in Tirana: The Stories of Jiri Kajane (Volume 1), and Some Pleasant Daydream: The Stories of Jiri Kajane (Volume 2), both published by Fiction Attic Press.
It’s early March, snow still on the ground, wind coming through the broken windows of the empty, disused ball bearing factory. Leni and I are sitting on crates, waiting, and the metal door dividing us from the loading docks rattles each time the wind sweeps through. We’ve been here long enough that I have noticed a rhythm to it.
“New beginnings,” Leni says.
“Sevasti guaranteed that he will have the first truck here by two o’clock.”
I check my watch; it’s 2:15.
Leni has purchased something called the New Hanjin Automat. An antique dealer in Tokyo, or maybe Sri Lanka, sold it to him in late August, and since then they have been working together to get the unwieldy shipment to Tirana. Finally, after some delays in Malta due to an underpaid crew and an unpaid fuel bill, the automat arrived at the port in Durres late last night. We’ve been waiting for Sevasti and his crew to transport it the last twenty-three miles.
I studied the manifest in my hand: eleven massive crates, containing a series of interconnected machines, each similar though different from the one before it. The machines hook together to form a large U-shape, lining the walls, theoretically surrounding cafeteria tables and chairs. Together, they create an automat. Leni has explained to me at least twice that such places—automats—were popular in forward-thinking western countries in the 1940s and 1950s. They were “an announcement to the people that the future had arrived,” he says, though I’m not sure what that means. I do know though that we’ve never enjoyed an automat here.
“There’s a lot to catch up on,” Leni notes.
His description in that first conversation was aided by some drawings on hotel restaurant napkins, hastily scribbled as he spoke with his Leni-style enthusiasm. The machines have a series of variably-sized compartments, complete with little sliding plastic windows and a coin operation system. You put in the coin, slide open the window, and grab the plate of food. Every compartment contains a different food item, a different culinary treat. “The future.” And will these New Hanjin Automat machines accept our copper-nickel 50 leke pieces, I wonder?
Taken together, the scheme formed what Leni had been calling “a dining experience without the pesky need for people.” This might sound odd if you didn’t know of Leni’s months of frustration working in the restaurant at the Hotel Dajti.
In hindsight, things for Leni seemed to go awry with the arrival of Mirjeta, a pleasant girl with a kind face who had moved north to begin work at the Dajti as one of the new summer waitresses. I did not become aware of the troubles at the restaurant until mid-July or so, the night Florin the cook stormed out of the kitchen, rashly pulled off his white chef’s hat, and struck Leni across the left cheek.
“If you have honor,” snarled Florin, “you will agree to my terms.”
I had never seen him angry like this. My vantage point was a table in the corner, where I had been finishing a pastry and a glass of raki. The usual Tuesday dinner meeting with the Minister of Development had finished early, and I was relaxing, killing time before heading home to the empty flat.
“Sunrise,” vowed Florin.
The bewildered look on Leni’s face told me this had been as unexpected to him as it had been to me.
“Florin, what’s gotten into you?”
The cook shook his fist and grunted, then he spun in a little circle, as if working to compose himself. He stood in front of Leni and exhaled. For a split second, Leni caught my eye, confusion filling his face.
Florin poked him on the shoulder and said, “I know you are used to getting what you want. We all know this.” He spread his arms out in an exaggerated gesture, as if every table in the restaurant was watching. I guess we were. “This time, though, it is my turn. My turn for once!”
Through the glass doors that connected the dining room to hotel reception came Mirjeta, her eyes wide with concern. I assumed she had been bringing snacks to the front desk clerks while hovering between tables. From the alarmed look on her face, though, it was likely she had seen everything. She started toward the two of them.
Leni bent down and retrieved Florin’s hat, which had fallen to the ground. He folded the hat in half and then gently held it out toward the cook.
“Why, Florin,” said Leni, a noticeable calm in his voice, “what is this all about?”
I should not have been surprised. One of Leni’s primary skills is to maintain poise under duress. Yet, the sight of angry Florin had disarmed me, and so this time I was taken aback by Leni’s almost serene response.
Before Florin could answer, Mirjeta suddenly planted herself between the two men, announcing loudly, “I cannot be the cause of all of this.”
Leni looked over at me, held my gaze, and shook his head, shrugging. He was genuinely perplexed.
Florin stepped past her and growled, “This is between me and him.”
“No, it isn’t,” said Leni, and he unfastened his apron, spun around, placed it on the nearest table, and exited the restaurant, disappearing into the night and the streets of Tirana.
I downed what remained of my glass of raki, left some coins on the table, then discreetly followed him.
A few minutes later, I found Leni pacing back and forth on the corner near my building, not far from the square on Rruga Ibrahim Rugova. He was going back and forth, in a ten-meter radius, just below the sign for the Poliklinika Dentare.
My new building was a four-floor flat with businesses, including a dentist, at the bottom level. The place was close enough to Skanderbeg Square that I could now walk to work at the Ministry. I had told myself that I had fought the good fight in my old place on the outskirts of town. But now, I did not like what I lately had been regarding as “the disquieting sense of quiet” that the old home had been bringing me. This trait was what I once loved about the place, but each night, coming back to the empty rooms, I found myself maddened by the solitude. When one of my clerks at the Ministry mentioned an opening in his uncle’s building, I made the change. I liked how the new place had little balconies for each flat, and I could go out and have a drink and listen to the people below.
“What was that all about, Leni?” He continued pacing and did not answer me. “Florin acted like you insulted his mother. Did you?”
“Ha,” Leni mumbled, still pacing. He seemed lost in thought.
I leaned against the wall and let him continue circling. He was touching his temples every so often, but then he would reach the end of his radius, spin back, and start it all up again. “Ha!”
If I were a smoker, I would have produced a cigarette from my coat jacket, struck a match and fired it up, puffing away while Leni worked through whatever he was working through. But I did not smoke, and neither did Leni, so I just stood there, hands at my side, back against the building. Two couples walked past us, nonplussed by his pacing, and a group of teenagers followed. Leni continued, not noticing them and them not noticing him.
“A stupid compliment,” Leni announced. He stopped in his tracks and locked eyes with me.
“It must have been,” said Leni, now engaging with me as if the spell of his confusion had been broken. “To Mirjeta yesterday.”
“You told her something nice.”
“She had her hair down, and it surprised me. You know how she always has it up and back in that tight ballerina bun.”
“Like every waitress at the Dajti.”
“Exactly,” he said. He seemed to be easing up. “When she came in, her hair was down. And stupidly I said, like an idiot, ‘Oh, Mirjeta, it’s you. Your hair is down.’ And she frowned at me and said, ‘So what?’ And there was kind of a confrontational tone to her voice.”
Leni gathered his thoughts for a moment. “Well…I guess…being caught off guard…I don’t know…I didn’t want to offend her, and so I said, ‘It suits you.’ Just something simple to diffuse it all.”
“I see. You tried to diffuse.”
Leni stood still, facing me now, eyes expectant, as if this were enough to explain everything. I thought of Florin striking him across the cheek, challenging him to a duel. The bizarreness of it all was bewildering. Yet, over the years, if there is something I had learned about Leni, it was that he had an unidentifiable gift of drawing people in, a gift that he regularly performed without even trying.
As he stood there, facing me, awaiting a response, I realized that he had done this very thing with Mirjeta. His abrupt attempt to ease a troubled social interaction had instead—because it was Leni talking in his Leni way with his Leni smile and his Leni eyes—made her feel not just complimented, but admired. Leni, always so at ease with himself, never understood how this quiet confidence—which draws many people in—can frustrate outsiders, activate their insecurities, create subconscious jealousies.
Although I had never told Leni, when I first met him, when I first recognized this quality in him, I utilized the behavioral dynamics behind it to craft a campaign in my position at the Ministry of Slogans: “Up ahead, see the calm waters—a refreshing swim awaits!”
My words were a little clunky, but taken with the serene graphics my assistants conjured, the campaign, to me at least, achieved a slight homage to the spirit of Leni’s elusive, confident effortlessness. Fortunately, the Minister of Economics liked the campaign, and for the following two quarters the banners adorned the bus stops and stations of the capital.
“Oh!” I said, finally realizing, “Florin is in love with Mirjeta!”
“But of course.”
“And he heard me talk to her,” said Leni.
“Or she told the story to someone else, and Florin somehow overheard that retelling—which might be worse.”
“Imagine Mirjeta misreading your compliment and then retelling the exchange to Anisa or Ledina.” These were two other waitresses on the night shift. Leni’s eyes began to widen with concern. I continued, “And imagine that Florin overhears this misguided yet amplified version of the story from behind the counter—Florin who likes Mirjeta, listening to her talk about how she thinks you desire her. You!”
“What do I do?”
“To be clear—you don’t actually like Mirjeta, right?”
“No more than any other pretty girl in the world.”
“Really. I was trying only to diffuse. I’m not interested in any of the staff at the Dajti—I’ve made that mistake before. Besides, I suppose Ledina is preferable to Mirjeta.”
“Then, I must talk to Florin,” I said.
“No, no. He won’t be in a mood to listen at sunrise. Promise me you will stay home tomorrow.”
“It’s my day off anyway.”
“Let me try to settle things,” I said, and for the first time in a while, I realized I was talking to Leni the way I sometimes spoke to my young assistants at the Ministry. “Don’t worry.”
I calculated that returning to the dining room of the Hotel Dajti and speaking to Florin on what could be regarded as his turf would be ineffective. Even worse, I might be trying to speak to him while Mirjeta was there, working her shift. And so, I had my assistants draft an ornate invitation card, made on the heaviest paper stock we had available, sealed in an envelope with gold wax and the official Ministry stamp. I had both assistants, not just one, hand deliver the envelope to the cook. Beforehand, the three of us toyed with the idea of labeling the card as “extra-special delivery,” then “extraordinary delivery” and then finally “exceptional delivery.” We did not want the cook to feel as if he were being summoned—though, in effect, that was entirely the case.
Florin was wearing his street clothes when he entered my office at the Ministry. He did not know how much I had witnessed from my corner table the night before, nor did he have any sense as to what I had learned in my ensuing debriefing session with Leni on the Rruga Rugova. So, it was not unreasonable that he began the meeting with a simple question: “Is the Minister of Slogans seeking my advice on marketing a new point of view?”
It was strange for me to see Florin dressed in a dark jacket and grey shirt, without tie. I was so used to him in his white chef’s hat and frock, along with those black and white checked pants. He smiled. “I guess you haven’t called me here to compliment my pastries.”
“The best in Tirana!”
“Ah, so you have,” he said.
I opened my desk drawer and produced two glasses and a bottle that I had acquired on an official trip to Italy two years earlier.
The cook leaned forward, studied the decanter for a moment. I filled the glasses, and handed him one across the desk. He sniffed the liquid and looked back at me, waiting. I raised my glass and said, “To the Dajti.”
“To the Dajti,” he said, and he gulped down his liqueur.
I refilled his glass quickly, then added a drop or two to my own.
“Florin,” I said, trying to adopt a flat, dry tone as a way of keeping my composure. It was so very odd to be sitting across from the chef, knowing that he was not only in love but that he was willing to fight for this love in the centuries-old fashion of the duel. “The Hotel Dajti is viewed not just by me but by nearly every minister as a valuable location—the most valuable in the capital.”
“Some deals are better made over dinner,” he offered, humbly.
His eyes filled with satisfaction, as if he had landed upon the right answer to a quiz.
I poured more into our glasses and tried to create a sensation of warmth from my cheeks, a friendliness. “To make things run smoothly, as in the kitchen at the Dajti, so very many things need to go right. All of these little things add up quickly. They accumulate almost in an invisible thread of connectivity to bring about perfection on a nightly basis.”
“An invisible thread—yes, I like that.” A strange sincerity washed over his face.
“So, Florin, I wanted you to understand how much we realize the nightly perfection you and your staff provide—unofficially, of course—to those of us making things happen here.”
“Thank you, Minister.”
I watched as he drank more of the amber liquid and then set down the empty glass on my desk. I took the bottle and poured another refill.
“Florin, perhaps if there is ever a problem that surfaces for you at the Dajti—I hope you feel that you could come to us for support. Any problem, no matter how big or small.”
The cook smiled. He lifted the glass, sniffed its contents once more, then swallowed a sip. The remainder, he balanced neatly in his upturned hand.
“I am grateful for this kind support,” he said.
I nodded, feeling now his eyes on the full glass on my desk. I drank it down.
He reached across and, to my surprise, took the bottle, removed its topper, and poured me a refill. “You have called me here about Mirjeta. You wish for me to stand down so that I do not upset the order of my kitchen, the hotel, and the Ministry’s unofficial negotiation venue.”
“Worse then. You want me to stand down so that your friend Leni can do as he pleases.”
“Florin, there’s been a misunderstanding.”
“It seems so.”
“Leni has no designs on Mirjeta.”
He sat forward, his eyes narrowing. “When has Leni ever looked the other way when he didn’t have to?”
“Tell me about his willpower. Go on.” He was standing now, Florin the cook, and he began buttoning his jacket. He scoffed. “I thought you of all people would understand this.”
He placed his hand on the brass knob of the office door. “Maybe the things I have heard about you aren’t true,” he said, and then he exited.
I sat there with the two glasses and the decanter on my desk, the mid-morning sun starting to make the crystal shine patterns onto my wall. The amber liquid took on a more golden quality with the light passing through it, and I felt a strange, defeated sensation that I couldn’t quite understand.
The summer drew to an end, and with each passing day there were fewer and fewer shifts for Leni. While the kitchen was the domain of Florin, the hotel itself was controlled by a majority ownership group who handled things from a distance. I was not sure exactly where these people were located, but I’d heard that an ultimatum had been given and that, as shrewd businesses tend to do, ownership favored the side that involved the least amount of risk for loss. When evaluating risk, would one choose a restaurant host over its head chef? People went to restaurants to eat.
I did not tell Leni the exact nature of my talk with Florin, in part, because I was still trying to understand it myself. All I knew was that ownership had chosen one side when there really weren’t two to begin with.
And so, as Leni planned his own new beginning, his response to this confusing romantic non-triangle, I knew that I would do whatever I could to keep it all going for him. After all, he was my friend.
Another fifteen minutes pass, and still no Sevasti, still no trucks. Leni and I remain in position, the wind pulsing a rhythm on the metal door of the loading dock. Bang, ch, ch, ch, bang.
“Did you know that this used to be a ball bearing factory?” Leni says in an exaggerated way.
“I remember those days of you leaving work early and passing by the hotel on your way to meet Ana whenever they assigned this place to her.”
We sit in silence for a few minutes more, the wind pinging the metal. Leni knows the pain, the dark weather my separation from Ana has caused, and the way the feelings linger, longer than expected, a gray cloud that follows me.
“I know you don’t love this,” Leni finally says, nodding toward the walls of the empty place. In my mind, I’m calculating how many times I’ve been here before, how many times I sat outside waiting for Ana to complete her weekly quality control inspection. Minus the holidays, it had been nearly forty-eight Tuesdays each year. It wouldn’t take much for my mind to conjure the rhythm of the working ball bearing factory, the movement of Ana’s dress as she walked toward me, the smell of her hair as she leaned in for a hug.
In the tone of Leni’s expression, I can read a sense of gratitude, but that passes between us, unspoken, and then he adds, brightly, “We can’t let this space go to waste.” He rises, points through the window at the sightline of important buildings in the not-too-far horizon. “The location can’t be beat.” He smiles. “Who thought it was a good idea to go to the heart of the city and install a ball bearing factory?”
We both laugh for a second, and then I can feel the weight of the space closing in on me. A few more minutes pass, and I notice that Leni is trying to conjure up something to say. He’s eyeing me, while the clock ticks, here in this familiar place that I had not visited in many years, as if he feels he has asked a little too much of me this time.
“Did I ever tell you about my honeymoon?” I offer.
“Down the coast.”
I nod. “Ana and I rented that house for nearly a month, such a beautiful tiny place near the top of the mountain, only clouds obscuring the view to Corfu.”
“A month!” Leni leans forward.
“I don’t know how I had gotten Hansa to give me so much time off at the Ministry, but he did.”
“True, but he made you pay for it afterward,” Leni says.
“The week before we arrived, a boy in the village had been out fishing when a mine exploded, killing him, hurting his brother, destroying their boat.”
“Like a landmine, but not in the land. Not buried. Floating in the water.”
Leni wiped his forehead.
I shrugged. “The army said it was British, from during the war, but the villagers claimed they’d found shrapnel with Albanian printing. Supposedly, there are over a thousand unexploded mines between the shoreline and the Greek islands. Anyway, it was the only thing people in that town talked about while we were there. At the restaurant, at the market, along the coastline, through the paths around the village, all the talk was about that boy and his brother, ‘What a horrible shame.’”
Leni shakes his head. “A kid I knew at school said that his cousin’s friend also died from a mine explosion—though that was near Durres.”
“That whole month, Ana and I would wake up early, wander the coastline, eventually making our way to the beach. There was a beautiful calm inlet, half-moon in shape, the water warm, the view incredible. We would sit there on the beach and read and sleep and eat and then read some more.”
“I’m confused,” says Leni. “This all sounds like the perfect honeymoon.”
“You’re right,” I say, “but every afternoon, it would get so hot, the sun beating down, the water so inviting, and I would want to go for a nice swim.”
“And Ana didn’t want me to go. ‘I don’t want my new husband getting blown up by a mine,’ she would say, and so I would always just sit there staring at the inviting water.”
“So, you never went into the water?”
“Never past our knees, never fully under. Actually, one time, I just dove in and swam a little ways. I couldn’t help myself; it was impossible to resist, the heat, the clear water, the afternoon sun. But then, when I got out to the buoy, I turned to see Ana on the shoreline. She was watching me, she was so nervous, she kept jumping and waving me back in. So, I finally turned around.”
“That’s a sad story,” Leni says. “Though I guess it has a happy ending. You did survive, after all.”
Leni smiles. Before he can speak, we hear the sound of trucks pulling up out front. We race outside to find Sevasti and his men off-loading the crates, prying the wood off, arranging the machines in sequential order.
Sevasti is standing on top of one of the trucks, staring at a black-and-white photo of the Old Hanjin Automat, turning it left and right, trying to orient himself, figure out how the machines are to be arranged.
“What do you think?” he says, holding it toward me.
I nod, and he starts shouting instructions to his workers, who all move in perfect unison. It’s an impressive operation. Sevasti had once led the engineering battalion of the army, nearly a thousand men, so I shouldn’t be surprised. For the small amount Leni and I have paid him, I’m impressed. When I tell him as much, he simply responds, “Minister, you of all people should know that an engineer must engineer.”
It is nearly midnight when Sevasti declares the job finished for the evening. I step inside the old ball bearing factory, and it is not quite transformed, but it is different. All of the automat machines are arranged in the U-shape of the photograph, with a small walkway behind them for loading the food into the compartments.
“Tomorrow,” Sevasti announces, “electricity and new windows.”
Leni walks over, and I watch them embrace like brothers.
I take the long way home, adding in a loop around the square, and then another loop up toward the university, hoping to get the taste of the ball bearing factory out of my mouth. But it is no use. Just past the university, I make a left where I should’ve gone straight, and before I realize my mistake, I am walking past the bakery where Ana and I purchased the cake for our wedding. Serghe, the owner, the baker, has long adorned his front window with small pictures of the hundreds, maybe thousands of occasional cakes he has concocted. Although there is an endless number of miniature photos all in a collage, my eyes, as usual, instinctively move to the lower left quadrant, where he has affixed a photo of the three-tier cake he designed just for me and Ana. Yes, the buttercream disguised the flavors—one tier chocolate, one hazelnut, one oofenberry—but in my mind I can almost taste the sweetness.
I hold my breath and close my eyes. That is just how it is. Tirana: the land of a thousand mines, some real, some imagined, all dangerous. Memories lurk on each street, through each alleyway, across all of the boulevards. I will see a storefront such as Serghe’s, and instantly my mind will be transported back to the days when Ana and I were together. At first, the receptors in my brain will ping on happiness and joy, those days with Ana were so perfect, so unexpected. Just when I had given up on that childhood vision of my life, a happy wife, a blissful wedding, Ana appeared out of nowhere, surpassing all of my expectations. But then, quickly, my brain will focus on my failures, memories of the crumbling marriage, my inability at first to recognize the signs, and then later my inability to reverse course, turn things around.
Upstairs, my new apartment is cold and dark. The sight of some unpacked boxes heightens the growing sense of unease, so I turn on every light in the place, hoping to scare away the memories. I take off my jacket and set about unpacking things, filling the drawers, arranging the cabinets. I even hang a picture on the main wall in the living room. It is a canvas banner that my old deputy presented to me to celebrate the success of our first major campaign for the Ministry of Transportation’s completion of the transnational highway. “The glory of your country has never been so close at hand!” We had suggested better slogans, but the Minister had settled upon this one because his wife had reportedly found it the most pleasing.
The melancholy subsides, and eventually I am able to fall asleep on the couch, the radio playing “The Song of Our Life” at a low volume. I sleep late and wake up in a lurch, realizing that I am more than an hour overdue to meet Leni back at the ball bearing factory.
Tirana: the land of a thousand mines, some real, some imagined, all dangerous.
When I arrive, Sevasti and Leni are lifting a new window into place. Dozens of young men are racing around, polishing the machines, sanding the floors, running cable, altering the coin-op mechanisms. Some students from the electricians’ collective are gathered around the junction box, their instructor talking about the various switches. In the kitchen, a group of girls are gathered around Leni’s cousin, Drita. When Drita is not working as a plumber for the Ministry of the Interior, she runs a non-profit club to train young women to be plumbers’ apprentices and eventually plumbers.
It’s all part of Leni’s plan. In the months since we cobbled together the money to purchase the automat, he has framed the project as a community effort to revitalize the area and create a welcoming place for everyone. There were articles in the newspaper, and the Minister of Commerce himself even mentioned the project in one of his speeches. I was amazed by Leni’s ability to get so many people, so many trades workers, to provide their services for free. In return, he has presented them all with a roll of complimentary automat tokens, and he has designed (with the help of the Masonry Club of Elbasan) a massive concrete monument along the outdoor patio that will contain the names of every individual who provided help in the construction.
Eventually, when the Amateur Neon Design Club of Kashar finishes the sign, the automat will have a name and a huge banner above the entrance. “Food for the People.” Leni referred to the name, and the automat’s design, as “communist chic.” He said he wanted to put together the sort of restaurant/meeting place that we were all promised in the ideas of Marx, Lenin, and Hoxha—a dream we never received.
Of course, as with all things involving Leni, there is a bit more to it. The red neon sign, Food for the People, will shine brightly down the alley, across the square, and into the windows of the Hotel Dajti. And while Leni, in all of his newspaper interviews, has never mentioned the Dajti, his target has been clear. “Food for the People, unlike some fancy restaurants across town, is for every citizen, every man, woman, and child, regardless of job, class, or position. And besides, real citizens don’t need their lunch operated on by a fussy man in a dumb hat with a pair of tweezers.” This is the unspoken target of the red neon sign.
From a distance, I hesitate to walk into the old factory. Nearby, I find the bench where I used to sit all those years ago when I would wait for Ana to finish up her quality control inspections. On those days, I always brought along a large jar of leng rrushi. Ana was a perfectionist, and the ball bearing factory was an exercise in dilettantism and compromise, so she always emerged from work in a state of frustration and anger. We would sit there for twenty or thirty minutes while she complained about the state of the factory, the laziness of the workers, and the incompetence of their supervisor, Burim Martinaj, all while gulping down the leng rrushi. The juice calmed her nerves, she said. I would just sit there, letting her vent these frustrations, and then, when she was finished, I would suggest a long walk home.
Due to her perfectionism, Ana’s quality control work caused her tremendous stress. When the anxiety had reached a certain level, I found that there was no use in trying to resolve the issues; rather, the only solution was to let her flush it out through words and anger and footsteps until the moment that she was able to be herself again. In these cases, like with those days outside the ball bearing factory, my goal was to find a way to get her back to herself before we returned to our apartment on the outskirts of the city. Our home was our sanctuary, a protected fort away from the troubles of our work and the uncertainty of those times. To think that I had valued it so much, and now it was gone.
Leni catches my eye from across the way, his hands still holding a window in place as Sevasti secures the edges. Ana hated the windows here; she said they were completely inefficient, drafty, unfair to the workers, and bad for the condition of the machines. I wonder now if she would be happy to see these improvements that Leni has brought about, albeit several years too late, nonetheless effective and useful.
Days later, I find myself in the same position. Trades people come, trades people go, incrementally, piece by piece, the space struggles to transform itself. I try to appreciate the change, the evolution, the improvement, but all I can see is the ball bearing factory. All I can see is the front doors, and all I can hope for is that time reverses itself, and Ana appears, walking toward me, arms outstretched.
Just then, up the alleyway, I notice a lone figure standing, hair loose around her shoulders, watching the commotion at the ball bearing factory. She’s in tall shoes, a flowing skirt, an outfit nothing like the uniform at the Dajti. It is not until Leni catches my eye that I know with certainty that the narrow figure is Mirjeta. How did he see her there, more than one hundred meters from the spot where he is struggling to hold the new window in place, while simultaneously handing Sevasti all sorts of tools? But then, of course he did. The world reveals itself to Leni in a way unlike others, slower, more deliberate, his eyes able to take in more, his brain able to process subtle shifts, nuances, in a way and at a speed that no one else can.
I watch Mirjeta for a moment as she stands there, unsure whether to continue forward or to return from where she came. Leni’s eyes are no longer on her. Instead, he is scanning the area, the outdoor patio, the factory, and the alleyway leading to her. If I know Leni well—and I do—he is already preparing for the possibility that Mirjeta will come this way. Most likely, he is calculating each of the individuals in the immediate area, considering which of them knows of Mirjeta, which of them has friends on staff at the Dajti, and how likely the ensuing encounter will get back to Florin.
“There is no cost to always being prepared,” Leni once told me.
I rise and walk toward Leni. I grab a pair of work gloves and cross the patio, weaving through the workers. At the window, I put my hands on the glass just below Leni’s, taking over his duties, holding the window in place. I nod to Sevasti, who is applying plaster to the edges around the frame.
“Leni,” I say, “you are needed at once in the rear of the kitchen.”
But it is too late. Mirjeta’s voice has called out, and all of us have turned toward her, all of us.
“I have coins,” she says. She holds them up in the air, and their brassiness in the light surprises me. She moves straight to Leni. “Coins for the automat. Coins for the people. Coins for the future.”
I’m stunned when Leni moves to her side, nearly touching her shoulder.
“There is no food yet.”
“I don’t care. I want to be first. I want to be able to tell people one day when this place is famous that I was here first because I believed.”
Even from where I’m standing, I can see Mirjeta’s golden brown eyes, wide-open, alive. There is a bounce to her, something indefinable, something magnetic. Yes, from far off, her hair up, her uniform on, perhaps Mirjeta is no different from Anisa or Ledina or any one of the Dajti’s revolving yearly roster of waitresses, but here, to make such a declaration would be impossible. Mirjeta is undeniable.
In my mind, I’m trying to consider whether Leni understood this simple truth months ago at the Dajti, or whether it has just been revealed to him here in the middle of the automat. Either way, he knows.
I watch as the two of them move in unison toward the center. To the left, to the right, the various tradesmen and tradeswomen all seem to glance up from their tasks to witness Leni and Mirjeta, together, nearly gliding across the room. They make a good pair, I can see it now. What I also can see for the first time is the automat itself, Food for the People, a gathering place for every citizen, rich and poor, great and small. Perhaps the mine—the memory of the ball bearing factory—is still there in my mind, but now, finally, it has been defused.
At the center wall of the automat, Mirjeta leans down, perfectly balanced in her red shoes. Over his shoulder, Leni flashes me a glance. He then looks back to where Mirjeta is tapping her nails on one of the automat doors. In the original plans, these are the compartments where Leni has suggested we should feature our slices of pie.
Mirjeta, still balanced on her precarious shoes, is holding her coin aloft. Sunlight, beaming in through the new windows, over the shoulder of Sevasti, catches the 50-leke piece as she guides it toward the slot.
“So… I am to get the first piece of pie,” she says.
He nods. “Imagine behind the clear glass door that the plate sitting there waiting for you has on it a very large slice of oofenberry pie.”
“I love oofenberry,” says Mirjeta.
She slots the coin, pushes the glass door to the right, and then removes the empty dish from the compartment. “What a lovely piece of pie,” she says, eyeing the plate of nothing.
“The best ever made.”
“The best ever made.” She ferries the empty plate to the table in the center and sits down.
Leni retrieves a fork and napkin and props them in front of her.
Mirjeta eyes him as he sits down across from her. She studies the empty dish, the fork, the napkin, and then Leni’s expectant eyes.
“This looks delicious,” she says.
Leni leans forward and watches as she takes an imaginary bite of the imaginary pie, the first bite ever at the automat, the first bite of the future.
“So?” he says. “How is it?”
Mirjeta chews the oofenberries and crust which are not in her mouth, chews them slowly, deliberately, allowing their savory sweetness, the rarest available in our country, to touch her tastebuds, her inner cheeks, her teeth. She closes her eyes as if this were her first meal after days of marching through the city streets, past the Hotel Dajti, past Florin the cook, past the Ministry and my two enthusiastic assistants, past Skenderbeg Square, past the new apartment I had secured to escape the old days, the old ways. She marches onward, and the automat soon takes on a different dimension.
For just a second, I can see the future. I can see the automat, and I can see the possibility of change. A future delayed, I tell myself, is a future nonetheless. I picture myself, an old man, one fall day, pushing through the leaves, the rain, the crowds, passing the automat, and seeing only the automat—not the faded, defused mine, that was the imperfect, ill-conceived ball bearing factory.
When the imaginary oofenberry pie is gone, Mirjeta puts both her hands on Leni’s. She holds them there for a second, the tips of her fingers gently holding his arms. She is looking into his eyes, her glance more powerful than Ledina, her presence more imposing than Anisa. Without speaking, she stands, glides across the room, and out the door.
Later, the tradesmen and tradeswomen gone, the automat quiet, Leni and I sit alone in the very spot where Mirjeta ate her imaginary pie. “I didn’t expect this,” he tells me.
“Didn’t expect what?”
“That it would work.” There’s a bewildered look on his face as he seems to envision the Mirjetas of the city walking into the automat on their own, pulling coins from their sleeves, slotting them, then eating in peace and silence, faces filled with contentment.
Everything that we had all come to regard as our regular way of being was now called into question.
“But if it works, then shouldn’t you be happy?”
“I should,” he admits. “Normal me would sit back and stack the coins and compare them to the costs and see where we landed.”
“Where did we land?”
“How would you feel?” he says, and in his unblinking eyes I see an unmistakable gravity. “Tell me. How would you feel knowing that you’d made something so effective that it insisted upon itself?”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“No wait staff, no host, no server. Just a cook and a machine with a glass door which accepts coins.”
A small laugh escapes from my lips. “She took the fork and she ate the piece of pie which was not on her plate, yes?”
“She chewed and swallowed as if it were really there.”
“And now you see what a success you have on your hands.”
A cloudy realization seems to be washing over Leni, a strange understanding. “What do I do?” he says.
I saw a helplessness in his eyes. “Be glad.”
“She likes me,” he says. “Different from the others.”
“Evidently,” I say.
“Mirjeta,” he mumbles. And then he just smiles.
I knew a sleepless night awaited me, and, mostly likely, the same fate awaited my friend, though for different reasons. It was plain that Mirjeta was on the brink of being Leni’s Ana.
“My old boss sent over a bottle of the rarest Italian liquor,” I offer, calmly. “A housewarming gift for my new place. Perhaps we can unwrap it together and make a toast.”
Leni nods in a way to indicate that this option is agreeable to him. He looks at me, then at the empty plate on the table that Mirjeta had pretended to enjoy. An unspoken understanding passes between us.
At the front door, Leni shuts off the lights and locks the locks. We walk the two blocks to my new apartment in silence. In a world that evolves so very slowly, change arrives suddenly and without warning. I glance over and see Leni, lost in thought, still processing the day. For a moment, I want to think that Leni, a man who sees everything so clearly, so easily, perhaps, for once, did not see this.
I think of that moment when I first saw Ana, when I first knew that she was what had been intended all along. Brown hair in her eyes, the worn leather satchel at her side. She was surrounded by a group of similar looking, similarly dressed university students, and yet somehow, she stood alone. Ana was all herself, the one bright light, shining, undeniable. The memory fills me with happiness. I wait for the sadness, the regret, to follow, but this time it never quite arrives.
At the door to my apartment, fiddling with the keys, I consider whether to give Leni a word of warning, caution, a simple piece of advice. “A slice of imaginary pie,” I would say, “will always taste better than the real thing.”
But then, I reconsider. Perhaps that statement is wholly untrue. Perhaps this cloud above has obscured my vision. The door shuts behind us, the keys back in my pocket, I lead Leni up the building’s concrete stairs toward my silent apartment. I think for a moment. I remind myself that a slice of pie, especially oofenberry pie, can sometimes actually taste better than you ever imagined. Sweetness and light, flaky, the smell of baking butter, and the rush of unimaginable flavor as the outer shell of the oofenberry finally gives way. Yes, there may come a time when the pie is gone and your plate is empty, but that does not change anything that has come before. If you are honest, if you are open, there will always remain that memory of the perfect, unexpected moment. And that memory of perfection, that simple taste, can stay with you. Forever.
In the kitchen, I reach up and grab the fancy Italian liqueur from the top shelf. I wipe the thick dust from the top of the bottle, grab two glasses, and follow Leni out onto the balcony. Down below, we watch as a couple works their way up the street, hand in hand, then, at the corner, pulling each other close, conserving their warmth against the cold night air.
Jiri Kajane was raised in Kruje, Albania. His satirical drama, Neser Perdite (Tomorrow, Every Day), received great acclaim in a singular 1981 performance before being banned by the Albanian Ministry of Culture. Due to Kajane’s precarious standing before the revolution, his work has never been published in his home country. However, his stories have appeared in translation in overseas literary journals, including The Chicago Review, Glimmer Train, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Alaska Quarterly Review, among others. Kajane’s collected stories, translated by Bill U’Ren and Kevin Phelan, were published by Fiction Attic in a two-volume collection, Winter in Tirana and Some Pleasant Daydream.
Bill U’Ren’s stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, The Alaska Quarterly Review, Chicago Review, CutBank, Christopher Street, Michigan Quarterly Review, and many other literary journals. He teaches creative writing at Goucher College.
Kevin Phelan lives in Northern California.
To celebrate the publication of Kajane’s new story, new and existing Founding Members of Fiction Attic Press will receive the print edition of Kajane’s two-volume collection of stories.
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