Jan/Feb 2023  •   Fiction

The Bulgarian Mother

by Robert Klose

Photo courtesy of NASA's image library

Photo courtesy of NASA's image library

Elvis Pryatkov showed up on my doorstep one day and introduced himself as a recent graduate of the university. He was going from door to door, looking for a room to rent. I didn't have one, but I liked his earnest manner, so I asked him in to see if I could help in some way.

Tall, lanky, and strikingly handsome, with dark, almost black hair brushed straight back, he was dressed in a cheap but neatly pressed gabardine suit, wearing a gold neck chain and a bulky wristwatch. When I offered him a cold drink, he accepted with enthusiasm. His gaze repeatedly wandered to my cupboards, so I asked if he was hungry.

Moments later, he was sitting at my kitchen table, wolfing down a large helping of leftover spaghetti topped with a mountain of chili.

Elvis was a talker but a considerate one. He didn't chatter only to hear the sound of his own voice; he actually shared personal details of his life, which warmed me to him. He was 22 and had come to the US on a student visa. When he had graduated college several months ago,he decided to stay. Not legally, though. He simply didn't return to Bulgaria. "You can't imagine," he said, desperately, "how awful it is over there. Think of New Jersey and then make it a thousand times worse."

I smiled. "But how will you find work?"

"That's easy," he said. "I can always wait tables or cut lawns. The challenge is finding a career."

"What would you like to do, if you could?"

"Wheel and deal in stocks," he said, casually, as he mopped up the sauce on his plate with a piece of bread.

"But you can wheel and deal online," I told him.

He smiled in a manner suggesting I didn't quite understand. "No," he said. "I want to wheel and deal other people's stock investments to make money for them, too. That requires a personal touch."

"Of course. You want to be altruistic."

"I'm not familiar with that word. What does it mean?"

I told him and then watched as he took a small blue notebook out of the inside pocket of his jacket and scribbled. "Everything that's new," he said, "I write down. I want to improve myself."

In short order we became friends. There was, of course, a central imbalance in our relationship, because I was gainfully employed and set in a career, while Elvis was scrambling to make ends meet, always with an eye on his next move. But in addition to looking ahead, he was always looking over his shoulder. "There must be some way for you to begin the process of legal residency," I remarked one day. To which he replied, "Yes, there is, but I'd rather do it my way."

Over time I realized Elvis's way was always the hard way. He seemed to feel doing something legally or by established rules somehow took the fun out of it. For example, rather than go shopping, he preferred to barter and angle for food. I once found him offering unsolicited advice to the manager of the local supermarket on how he could heighten the visibility of some of his stock. The manager was receptive, and Elvis walked away with a cantaloupe and a dozen eggs.

Elvis lived in a subsidized housing development near the airport. I knew the place. It was a hive of single, unemployed mothers with passels of wan-looking children. When I first went to visit him there, I was struck by the starkness of his apartment. Only two rooms, one half taken up by an immense futon draped with a faux velvet comforter with a needlepoint of the resurrected Jesus. Elvis's clothing was stacked neatly on the floor against one of the walls. A beat-up formica table stood under a bare lightbulb in the kitchen, along with two mismatched chairs. I watched as he went to the refrigerator for a pitcher of juice. In contrast to his spartan living space, it was brimming with food.

"Neighbors," he said."They leave things on my front step."

I looked at him for a long moment, standing in the middle of the almost empty kitchen. "It must be lonely here," I remarked.

Elvis smiled. "Don't worry," he winked, "I am not lonely."

When I left his apartment, I passed a shapely woman of about 30 coming up the walk. She was wearing tight-fitting jeans and pink flip-flops, carrying a covered dish.

Although Elvis was young, healthy, and self-sufficient, he projected a certain sadness, perhaps rooted in his desperate longing for success. One day I ran into an old friend in town. Hal Meanings was a well-known and very prosperous securities broker who sat on every board in the city. A real back slapper. Sinclair Lewis would have been quick to call him a Babbitt. I took the opportunity to tell him about Elvis. "He's a go-getter," I said.

Hal rubbed his chin. "I've hired go-getter after go-getter from the university," he said, almost ruefully. "Most don't know their asses from their elbows."

"This one is different," I said, rising to Elvis's defense. "He's Bulgarian. He has the work ethic that allowed that country to endure 50 years of communism."

Hal's eyebrows took flight. He was an old Reagan Republican and still made reference to "Red" China. "Okay," he said. "Send him to see me at seven tomorrow morning. We'll see what he's got."

"Seven?" I remarked. "Isn't that a bit early?"

Hal smiled. "It's his first test. Didn't Woody Allen say showing up is 80 percent of success in life?"

I drove to Elvis's apartment. He came to the door in his briefs, bare-chested, his gold neck chain on full display. When I told him the news, it was as if he were of two minds. On the one hand, he was flush with gratitude. On the other, I sensed he bristled a bit because he was accustomed to making his own way. Still, I think he realized here was opportunity knocking, so he took my hand and squeezed it as we stood on the threshold. Then a woman cried out from inside, "Elvis, you bastard, come back to bed!"

He reddened and sighed.

"Don't say a word," I said, holding up a hand. "Just be sure not to miss this appointment. Hal's well-connected."

Elvis nodded and smiled. Then I left him to his affairs.

The next morning I awoke with a start to find Elvis standing over me. I looked at the alarm clock. 5:30.

"I'm sorry I broke in," he said. "I was afraid I wouldn't be able to wake you by knocking."

"How did you get here?"

"A friend gave me a ride."

"How did you get in?"

"I found the secret hiding place for the key."


"I'm Bulgarian."

"It's only 5:30."

"I want to make sure I'm there on time. I came here to ask your opinion. Am I presentable?"

I gave Elvis the once over. He had on a thick, camel hair trenchcoat with wide lapels, a red silk tie, black shirt, black polyester slacks, and faux alligator loafers. A white silk scarf nested about his neck. "How do I look?" he pleaded.

"Like the king of the Gypsies."

Elvis smiled appreciatively and hurried back out to his ride.

I waited out the day with bated breath to hear how the interview had gone. By noon I had heard nothing. By suppertime the phone had still not rung. Curious. For a moment I imagined it had gone badly and Elvis had done something desperate. He never seemed far removed from the abyss of despondency, despite his energy and drive. Finally, at 8:00, he called. "I've been thinking about you all day," I told him. "How did it go?"

"Okay," he said. "Mr. Meanings showed me around and asked me a few questions. Then I left."

"Where did you go?"

"I took a job at Amigo's."

"The Mexican restaurant?"

"Yes. I noticed that all the help was Mexican, so I told them that I was, too, that my name was Ramirez. Please don't say anything."

"Who would ask me?"

"They might. I gave them your name as a reference."

I was confused. "Why did you get a job at Amigo's if there was a chance for a securities position with Hal?"

"There was no chance."

"I don't understand."

"When he found out I wasn't legal, everything changed. It was like he was suddenly too busy to talk to me. It was stupid of me to go there, to get my hopes up."

"I'm sorry."

There were a few moments of awkward silence, and then he sighed. I asked if he was okay.

"I... there's something I need to say, but it's been difficult. I need to talk to somebody about it. It's very personal. Something not easy for me to talk about."

Once again, silence. I began to fish. "Is it a medical problem?" I asked.

"More personal," said Elvis.


"My God," said Elvis. "That's the one thing I have under control. No. It's not sex. Listen, you're the only American friend I have, so I'll give you my trust. It's my mother."

For some reason I had never thought of Elvis as having a mother. He seemed so self-contained, as if he had emerged from the Carpathian ether fully formed. I finally inquired, "Is she not well?"

"My mother is a very strong-willed woman, but also very ignorant," he said, and then caught himself. "My God! Don't ever tell her I said that. She'd kill me."

"How could I tell her?" I laughed.

"Because she's coming here. To America."

"And you don't want that?"

"Of course I do. But like I said, she's a strong-willed woman. She's never been outside of Bulgaria, but she thinks she knows everything about the world."

"Why is she coming here? Does she have money for such a trip?"

"She doesn't," said Elvis. "She's as poor as a mouse. She collects old clothes from dumps and turns them into rags which she sells on the streets of Sofia. My own mother! I sent her the money for the ticket. It was almost all the money I had."

"I could lend you a few bucks to tide you over."

"Impossible," he said, his voice registering shock. "My mother would accuse me of accepting charity. She'd rather see me lying in the street under a sheet of cardboard. Well, I want her to meet you, to see that I have a good friend here. She thinks everyone I've met is a bum."

"But how would she know that if she's never been here?"

"That's the point," said Elvis. "I can live with her, but living with her ideas is a different thing all together. She even thinks Maine is some sort of independent province between America and Canada. When I asked her why she thought this, she said because all American states have more than one syllable. That's the type of logic she has."

"When is she coming?"

"In five days. I don't have a phone so I gave her your number in case she has a problem along the way."

"Does she speak English?"

"Some. She learned it by reading People magazine."

It seemed to me, at first blush, that Elvis was only complicating his situation. He was barely hanging on in this country, and now he was importing his mother. "How long will she stay?" I asked.

"Legally? Until her tourist visa runs out. Then she will have to go underground."

"Elvis," I sighed.

"What?" he demanded. "I can't just ship her back to that hell on earth."

I sensed Elvis, despite his anxiety, was actually thrilled at the prospect of having his mother here as a fugitive. "I'll help you any way I can," I told him.

"I knew I could count on you. Good night."

Three days later the phone rang. I barely had a chance to say hello before a woman began to berate me. "I call ten times, so where you?" she demanded.

In the instant I knew who it was. "Elvis said you were coming on Saturday. This is only Thursday."

"Ha!" she coughed. "He know nothing. I here Port-land. Stuck. Don't make wait. Please!"

"Portland's a two-hour drive. I won't be able to leave for another hour. Just wait and..."

"Ha!" she coughed again. "I wait all life in Bulgaria. In America I think I no wait, but yes."

"I'm sorry. It's the best I can do."

I heard what sounded like a low growl at the other end. "Yes," she said. "And you supposed Elvis friend. Ha!"

Within the hour I was underway. I stopped at Elvis's apartment, but he wasn't in. I wanted to leave a note, but didn't have a pen or scrap of paper.

I reached Portland Jetport at 6:30. Although Elvis had never described his mother to me, she was unmistakable. The woman standing in front of the terminal had her arms wrapped about the heavy wool sweater she was wearing, a cigarette hooked in one hand. Her hair was jet black and lusterless, piled upon her head, with an ostentatious sequined bow holding the mass together. She wore blood red polyester capris and translucent plastic shoes. When I got closer, I noticed two coffee-colored moles, as big as dimes, one on her chin and the other on the side of her nose. When she saw me, she sneered and threw up her arms. Then she dropped the cigarette and crushed it viciously with the toe of her shoe.

I pulled over and got out. "Mrs. Pryatkov?" I inquired.

"So!" she said. "I almost sick standing. Don't say Pryatkov. Just Olga. Take bag."

I picked up an immense carpet bag and hauled it to the trunk. "Careful!" she barked. "My world. There's rakiya."



As soon as we got into the car, Olga lit up another cigarette. She dragged deeply on it and blew the smoke against the cold windshield, where it cascaded down onto the dashboard. The smell of the dark Balkan tobacco almost sickened me, but I didn't say anything.

"So," she said, disapprovingly, "this is America."

"Well," I said, "just a small part of it. America is a big country."

"Ha!" she said, dismissing my comment. "On map, Bulgaria bigger."

The ride north was unpleasant and tense. It consisted of Olga's tirades against her journey, her wait, Elvis, Bulgaria, and life in general. Her orations were punctuated by anxious periods of silence, during which I sensed she expected me to say something. When I didn't, she simply took up the slack and tilted against some other windmill. About halfway to Bangor she asked, out of the blue, "So, why I not married?"

"Do you mean, why am I not married?"

"No you. Me!"

I swallowed audibly. "Is that a question, Olga?"

"Sure," she said as she rolled down the window and flicked her cigarette butt.

"I have no idea," I said.

"Curious?" she said, rather seductively. For some reason I was surprised the word was in her vocabulary.

I threw her a glance, and for the first time she smiled.

"Well, I used be married," she said. "He beat me, and you know what I do?"

I shook my head.

"I kill him."


"No," she said. "Oh, you believe," she giggled as she waved me off. "You believe anything."

And then, without another word, Olga put her head back and fell asleep. The rest of the trip was uneventful.

We arrived at Elvis's apartment after 11:00 PM. Olga had stirred only a few minutes before and seemed disoriented. "Here?" she said as she fumbled inside her sweater for another cigarette.

"This is it," I told her.

The windows were dark. It struck me that Elvis might not be home. Why should he be? He was 22, and the night was young. And then my blood ran cold. What would I do with Olga in that case? Take her home with me? Put her in a motel?

She got out of the car and marched up to the door. She tried the knob. Locked. I saw her scruffle in some bushes, after which she came up with a key. She disappeared inside. The scream was so loud, I could hear it from the car. A moment later a woman came running out of the apartment, her arms crossed over her naked breasts. And then another! I sat in the car, riveted, peering through the windshield, as if I were watching a show. Olga appeared on the threshold, wielding a broom with a fury that made me think of Christ driving the money changers from the temple. She was shouting, first in Bulgarian, and then English—"Who-ahs!"

The coast having been cleared, I got out of the car, retrieved Olga's carpet bag, and cautiously went inside. There was Olga, berating Elvis, who was cowering in the corner of his bedroom, naked, grasping at the bedsheet to cover his genitals. As Olga continued to browbeat him, he glanced up at me. A self-effacing smile broke across his face, as if to say, See? This is how it is. Don't think less of me for it.

I edged in a little deeper and placed the carpet bag on the floor. As I left, I turned and took one last look. Olga was now sitting on the edge of the futon, holding her son and the bedsheet draped across her lap in a sort of Balkan pietá. I quietly left and went home, leaving the reunion to run its course.

The next day Elvis called on a borrowed cell phone. But I was the first to speak. "Oh, Elvis," I lamented. "Two women?"

"The only reason I let you lecture me is because you're my friend. If you were Bulgarian, you'd be my brother. But that's not why I'm calling. My mother is throwing a welcome party for herself next Friday. You're invited. She wants to thank you."

"I'll be there. Can I bring anything?"

"Yes. Do you have a bicycle you could lend me until I'm able to buy one? It will make it easier to get around."

"You can use mine. But is there anything I can bring to the party?"

Elvis laughed. "Ha! Wait until you see how much food my mother is making. You'll be hauling leftovers home in bags."

When I arrived at Elvis's apartment a week later, there were cars everywhere, even up on the small front lawn. As I unhitched the bicycle, I noticed the futon had been folded up and exiled there as well, no doubt to make room for the crowd inside. Or perhaps Olga regarded it as a thing of iniquity and wanted it banished from her sight.

Even from the street I could hear the pandemonium of voices shouting and singing. Tinny rock and roll with exotic lyrics was pulsing within. I knocked. Elvis opened the door, beaming. "You're here," he said as I rested the bike against the outside wall.

I looked beyond him at the 20 or so bodies packed into that small space. Almost all were young people, mostly men but a few women as well. They were well dressed, the men with gold chains and patent leather shoes, the women caked with make-up and glitter, wearing stylish skirts or wraps. I could smell liquor in the air. A long table stood against a wall. It was stacked with hot dishes, cold dishes, pastries, drinks—a cornucopia of Balkan delicacies.

Olga came out of the kitchen and marched right up to me. She took me in a bear hug and planted kisses on both cheeks. She signaled to a squat Bulgarian—"Boris! Don't stand! Rakiya!"

Boris did as he was told—how could he not?—handing a glass to Olga, who conveyed it to me. "Nazdrave!" she sang, and the others echoed her toast.

"I—I don't drink," I said, and a moan went up from the crowd.

Olga threw me a stern look. "You drink rakiya before?"

I told her I hadn't.

She grew merry again. "Then how you know? Drink! Nazdrave!"

I took the merest sip and felt my throat clench. A blast of fire ran through my sinuses. I immediately knew I could never finish even a shot of the stuff.

"Well?" demanded Olga as the others looked on. "How it taste?"

"Like lighter fluid."

Olga nodded, not comprehending. "Yes, yes," she finally said. "Drink!"

From that point the spotlight was off me and on Elvis. I orbited the food for most of the rest of the evening as he took turns dancing with the girls, the boys, and, of course, his mother. Olga was actually quite light on her feet. She let the males spin her about the room while she managed to hold onto a cigarette with one hand and a glass of rakiya with the other. When she wasn't dancing or taking food from the oven, she hovered over Elvis, telling him to chew or pay more attention to her or simply shut up. I realized this was a woman who was used to getting what she wanted, when she wanted it. Today she had decided there would be celebration and libation, and—poof!—her wish was everyone's command.

Elvis eventually drifted over to me. He was drunk and threw his arm across my shoulder. "Some party," he said.

"Where did you get all these Bulgarians?"

"We are everywhere," he said, poking me in the chest to emphasize each syllable. "We are America now."

Shortly after midnight the crowd began to thin. As they drifted away, they kissed both Olga and her son on their cheeks. I made an effort to leave, but Elvis begged me to stay. By 1:00 AM, everyone had gone. I lifted a platter to help with the clean-up, but Olga immediately slapped my hand. "No!" she barked. I watched as she muscled things from the table and into the kitchen under her own steam.

Elvis put his arm around my shoulder again and conducted me to a bean-bag chair on the floor. He took a bean-bag chair next to mine. No sooner had we sat down than he began to cry. He leaned his head on my shoulder. "What a world," he sighed.

"You have a lot of friends," I remarked. "And your mother loves you."

Elvis continued to weep. "True, true," he sniffed. "But you're telling me what I already know. My mother wants to talk to you."

"About what?"

"She'll tell you."


"No. She's too drunk on rakiya. Look at her."

I glanced toward the kitchen and saw Olga stumbling about as she cleaned and put away cookware and leftovers. "I'll help her," I said as I moved to get up, but Elvis caught my arm. "No," he said. And then, out of the blue, "I want to marry."

In addition to all his other burdens, why would Elvis want to complicate his life even more? "You want to marry now?"

"Yes. Now. But don't worry. My mother won't let me."

"You're 22 years old. You can make your own decisions."

Elvis laughed. Then he looked up and peered deeply into my eyes. "Are you my friend?" he asked.

"Of course."

"Then kiss me."

I froze. "Elvis?" was all I managed.

"Not that kind of kiss," he said. "Just on the cheek. Slav style. A kiss of friendship."

I looked around, as if there might be witnesses who would misjudge the act. Then I planted the merest kiss on his right cheek, as tentative as my sip of rakiya.

"Thank you."

I got up to leave. "I'll listen to your mother tomorrow."

"Thank you."

"Do you want me to help you bring the futon back into the house?"

"No," said Elvis, and then he laughed. "Look."

We peered out into the night. The futon was swollen with rain, which was coming down in sheets. "What a world," he lamented.

Elvis's not having his own phone made everything cumbersome. I never knew when he—and now his mother—might be home, or what I would find if I visited unannounced. At least the days of naked women fleeing the apartment were over—for now. The door was wide open when I arrived. I knocked on the jamb and Olga appeared, wearing a headscarf with the two tails of the knot bobbing over her forehead like antennae. She had on a blood-red apron and fuzzy slippers and was in the middle of a cleaning extravaganza. Overnight she had gone from an assertive, jazzy broad to a caricature of a frumpy Slav cleaning woman. "Yes, yes," she said. "Come in. Elvis not here."

"Where is he?" I inquired as I stepped inside.

"Work!" said Olga, as if it were a command. "Sell! How you say? Stocks! Lots of money."

This gave me pause. Had Hal offered Elvis a job after all? If so, life would almost immediately become easier for both of them.

Olga told me to sit at the kitchen table. She slid a plate of diminutive pancakes in front of me. They smelled faintly of onion. "Eat," she commanded, and I complied.

"This is delicious," I said as the warm food melted in my mouth.

Olga sat down across from me and rested her chin in one of her hands. She poured herself a soda glass of rakiya and then tried to set one up for me. I waved her off with such ferocity, even she relented. I asked her what she wanted to talk to me about, and she broke into tears. I froze with a forkful of food halfway to my mouth. Olga's sobs grew louder. She pulled up her apron and mopped her face with it. What to do? I couldn't leave, but I thought it might be risky to console her in any physical way. And so I continued to eat, waiting for her to make the next move.

Once she had composed herself, she made some preliminary and disjointed remarks about life in Bulgaria, the woes of a half-sister in Varna who had married a wife-beater, and how gray and unremarkable the Atlantic Ocean looked from the air. She enunciated "Elvis" several times, but the name had no context; I couldn't tell whether she was proud of him or disgusted. Finally, taking a breath, she blurted out, "Oh, I need a man!"

Once again, a little pancake dangled on the end of my fork as I sat there, dumbstruck. But Olga wasn't looking at me, so I felt, in some peculiar way, safe. All I could think of was to ask the next logical question. "Why?"

Olga sobered up immediately. She looked at me as if I were an imbecile. "Why?" she echoed. She made a saucy, doubting expression. "If you no know why," she said, hesitating, "then you no know nothing." She cast a wistful look to the street window and sniffed. "Today mailman come. Fat, no hair, red face. But I think in my head, 'Oh, marry me!' Then he go away."

"Olga," I began, "you've just arrived here. Elvis is happy to see you. He's working hard. You have a home and a loving son. Maybe you should get adjusted first and then worry about these other things."

She seemed unconvinced. So I tried another tack. "You're an attractive woman. And you can cook. Once you're ready, American men will want to know you. I guarantee it."

This did the trick. Olga's expression softened, and she smiled at me. "Oh, you speak nice," she said. "Elvis so happy to have friend like you."

That was the end of the conversation. I finished my food and left the apartment. On the way home I stopped at Hal's and asked about Elvis. Hal laughed through his nose. "I didn't hire him," he said. "Big no-no if he's not legal. Especially in this business."

I left feeling more confused than ever. But I went to the next logical place—Amigo's—and found Elvis wearing a chili-red uniform and handing burritos to hungry customers. He saw me and grimaced. He begged the manager for five minutes and came around the counter.

"Your mother thinks you're trading stocks."

Elvis nodded and cast a nervous glance about. "You don't understand," he said. "She thinks I'm a big success here. Her standards are very high."

"Didn't she make the connection between your apartment and having very little money?" And then another thought occurred to me. "Elvis," I said, "how have you been supporting yourself since graduation?"

He bit his lip, and in the instant I knew. "The women?"

Elvis shrugged. "It's just business. They would have loved me anyway. But one of them felt sorry for me and gave me some money. That's when the others started as well. One thing led to another." And then he leveled his gaze at me. "Does this make me a whore?"

"Just don't expect me to kiss you in public," I said. And then, "I guess you know what your mother wanted to tell me."

Elvis nodded. "She's desperate."

"For the green card?"

Elvis threw me an incredulous look. "No," he said point blank. "For a man. She has a big appetite for men. The thing is, they've always treated her poorly, but she persists."

"Well, you're never too old to fall in love."

Elvis looked at me as if I just didn't understand. "It's not that," he said. "She just wants someone who will treat her well."

My pity for Olga knew no bounds, but I left feeling anything but sympathy for Elvis. If she ever became suspicious and asked me the truth about his situation, what would I say? That all stockbrokers in America wear paper hats and smell of salsa?

An interlude of calm set in. Two weeks passed, and I didn't hear a word from Elvis. I stopped by the apartment once, and finding no one home, felt I had done my best to maintain contact with a friend. I knew if Elvis needed me, he'd get in touch.

But then another week flew by, and then another. It had now been a month since I had last seen Elvis and his mother. Curious. I drove to the apartment, and before I even got out of the car, I knew the unit was vacant, the front picture window gaping dark and unadorned. As I sat idling, a slight woman, very attractive, came up to me from a neighboring apartment. She was holding a toddler boy by the hand. "You looking for Elvis?" she asked. I told her I was. "He's gone," she said, and her eyes grew moist. "Two weeks ago a van pulled up with a bunch of his friends. Him and his mother got in, and that was that."

I asked if she knew where they went.

"Don't know," she said. "But if you find out, tell him to get in touch with Lisa."

I looked down at the little boy and smiled. He pulled himself behind his mother.

I checked at Amigo's. They told me Elvis had taken a job on the coast for the summer tourist season. An upscale restaurant in North Harbor. I knew the place. Although I burned with curiosity, I had no intention of driving the two hours to get there. Should I call? I didn't know where on the totem pole Elvis might be, so phoning him at work could be dicey. I finally rationalized a Saturday drive to North Harbor in the interest of retrieving my bicycle.

I arrived toward evening. The Astaca Inn was a lovely old cedar-shingled Victorian perched at the water's edge. The harborside deck was alive with patrons, their faces bathed in soft lantern light. Couples came and went through the front entrance, passing under a grand portico appointed with baskets of fresh flowers. The whole place was an oasis of wealth and breeding, not far from Maine's working waterfront where lobstermen sweated their days away at their backbreaking business.

I went inside. Waiters, waitresses, and other help dashed about, catering to the tourists. I recognized some of them as Elvis's compatriots. I signaled to one, and he immediately came over to me. I asked him where Elvis was. "In the kitchen," he said before rushing away.

I meandered through the dining room and over to the kitchen. It was an open affair, so the elite could verify the hoi polloi cooks were not monkeying with their victuals. I spotted Elvis immediately, in his white shirt and black slacks and little black bowtie. He hoisted a platter, turned, and froze when he saw me. Then he smiled, relaxed, and waltzed past me. "I'll be right with you," he said, as if I were just another one of the swells.

A moment later he took me by the arm to a quiet corner. "I'm so sorry," he said. "I ran out of money and was ashamed. This job came up, and I took it. I should have told you."

"Lisa wants you to call her."

Elvis flushed. And then he nodded. "Yes, I have many loose ends."

"The little boy?"

He put his hands up. "But that's not one of them."

"It looks like you brought half of Bulgaria with you."

"There's a big worker shortage, thank God," he said. "They hired seven of us on the spot."

"What about your mother?"

"She babysits for a rich summer family. They even let her live in their basement. It's all under the table, of course."

"Of course."

Just then there was a commotion at the door. We both turned, as did the patrons, and there was Olga, in denim capris and a sweatshirt, being cross-examined by the maître d'. Elvis grew agitated. "It's okay," I told him. "Go back to work. I'll see what it's about."

I approached Olga and immediately noticed her worried expression. I nodded to the maître d' and escorted her back outside. Even in the shallow light, I could see she had been crying. The strap on one of her plastic shoes was broken. "Olga, what's wrong?"

She collapsed against me. "The man love me," she said.


"Babysitter dad."


Olga pulled back, exasperated. "Man. Baby I sit. He papa. When wife go out, papa touch me in kitchen. Touch me here!" She hefted her breasts to make her point.

"My God."

"Yes!" she cried out, having finally gotten through to me. "So I smack in face. He say, 'Get out, who-ah!' Oh, now I got nothing to tell Elvis."

"Where are all your things?"

Olga began to sob uncontrollably. I handed her my handkerchief, which she bundled against her face. Then she pointed behind her. Over by some shrubbery sat her sorry carpet bag, as well as an immense plastic Walmart bag with her newly-acquired American gleanings.

"Olga," I said, "let me tell Elvis." I escorted her over to my car and helped her into the passenger side. "Please try to relax. I'll be right back."

"God bless you!"

I returned to the dining area. Elvis was in the kitchen, but he looked like a frightened bird. He ran over to me. "What's wrong?" he pleaded. "Where's my mother?"

"She's in my car. She was fired. She says the man she was working for made a pass at her. When she rejected him, he threw her out. She has all her things outside."

Elvis dipped his head from side to side. I could see the wheels turning in his eyes.

"Can I take her to your place?"

Elvis shook his head. "Then we'll be thrown out. It's a two-bedroom, and there are seven of us. I told the landlord there would be only two." And then his eyes lit up. "I know," he said. "I'll let my mother have my place and I'll find something else."

"Elvis," I said, "you don't have a place. If the apartment is meant for two, then five of you don't have a place."

He looked at me as if I were too stupid to comprehend the intricacies of Bulgarian arithmetic. And then he grew reflective. "It's a shame," he said. "She really wants to meet a man here."

"Elvis!" I said, taking him by the arm. "He assaulted her. That's not the kind of man she wants."

The maître d' came over to us. He pulled up his sleeve and made Elvis look at his watch. "I'm so sorry," Elvis said to the man. "My mother's in trouble."

"I'll take care of it," I said. "Elvis, get back to work. Call me tomorrow morning. Your mother will be okay."

I went outside and returned to the car, retrieving the carpet bag and the Walmart bag along the way. I knew what I was going to do, and I dreaded the prospect of getting involved so deeply in this intrigue. "I'll take you home with me, Olga," I said. "I have a spare room. Tomorrow we can figure out what to do for you."

She hadn't heard a word. She was sound asleep. As I began to pull away, Elvis came charging out of the inn. "She's asleep," I told him as he leaned through the passenger window and planted a kiss on his mother's forehead. He nodded and stepped back. I took the opportunity to ask about my bicycle.

"Don't worry about it," said Elvis. "It's okay."

"Yes, but where is it?"

"I gave it to a friend of mine. He didn't have a car."

"Elvis, that was my bike. I'd like to have it back."

"Don't worry," said Elvis. "He's in Boston. I'll take care of it."

I threw him a questioning look. "Is there a number I can reach you at tomorrow?"

Elvis shook his head ruefully. "No. I've been fired. For looking after my own mother. That means I'll have to take my friends with me, too, because they depend on me. It's okay. We would have been fired anyway when they found out we're illegal." Then he firmed his lip. "The tips were so good here."

I watched as he ran back inside. I turned the car around and headed for home. As I drove inland, the sky opened up. I was startled by the ferocity of the rain. It cascaded so dramatically down the windshield, even with the wiper on high it was like driving underwater. I slowed down and turned the defroster on full to clear the fog from the glass.

Olga began to stir. She awoke with a start. "What is this? Ocean?".

"It's a downpour," I said without taking my eyes from the road, or what I could see of it. "A cloudburst."

"Where Elvis?"

"At work. He knows you're with me."

"We go you home?"


"You good man."

"Thank you."

"Why you no marry?"



What could I say? That I was too busy rescuing errant Bulgarians to think about myself? I found it hard to engage in conversation while navigating the narrow, winding road in the downpour. "Olga, I don't know," I said. "I guess the answer single people give is they haven't met the right person yet."

"Who is right person?"

I sighed. "I don't know. I'll know her when I meet her."

The interrogation continued. "You hit womans?"

I sniffed. "No, Olga. I no... I mean, I would never hit a woman. I would never hit anyone."

"You drunk?"

"I really don't drink, so I don't get drunk."

"You love womans?"

"I don't understand."

"I mean, you no love mans."

"Olga, I love women, but I just happen to be single."

"But you no love mans, too."

"No, I don't love men, at least not the way you mean."

"But you love Elvis."

"Like a friend, yes. He's a good person."

"Yes," she said, contented. "Everyone love Elvis."

Before she could probe more deeply, I felt the right side of the car jerk to the side, as if it were being pulled away from me. "Olga! Hold on." The force was inexorable. I found myself spinning the steering wheel wildly. A branch slashed across the windshield and the car hydroplaned, spun about, and thudded against some large object, banging my head against the driver's window. And then, silence.

It took some moments for my head to clear. I looked over at Olga, who was holding her hands over her face. "Oh, God!" she said. "We hit cow!"

I opened my door and stepped out into the rain. I hadn't hit a cow, but rather what seemed to be a stack of hay bales in front of someone's property. But my front tire had a long, ugly gash in it.

Olga rolled her window down a crack. "Is cow?" she asked.

"No, Olga. A flat tire. Stay inside. I'll fix it."

I got my tools out and went to work in the downpour. Within minutes I was so drenched, I couldn't have gotten any wetter. And then, as I carried the old tire to the trunk, I slipped and fell in a pool of mud. Instead of getting up, I sat there, listening to the rain, blinking up at the unforgiving sky. I was trying to discern how I felt. The only word that occurred to me was an old-fashioned one. Woebegone.

I got back into the car and sat with my hands on the wheel as the water ran down my body and pooled under me. The rain had abated a bit, but I still wanted to wait before continuing on. For reasons I couldn't put my finger on, I felt a growing burn of anger. I indulged myself in thinking I was the most forsaken man on earth at that moment, and with Olga in the car, there was little prospect of improvement anytime soon.

"My life..." said Olga as she kneaded her fingers.


"My life no good. Elvis no tell you about my father. His grandpa. Hit me. Elvis only five. Grandpa put hand where they no should go Elvis pants. Poor Elvis. We leave. I no husband—he leave before Elvis born. So I find another man. This one hit me, too. Bulgarian men so angry, so sad. Elvis bigger boy. He try help. Hit man in face with brick. We run away. Things so bad we even think, so maybe Romania. Why not? Can't be worse Bulgaria. So we go Romania. Guard at border say no, no, Olga, you can't come with boy. So I cry, show no money. He say, that okay, there is way. Give Elvis candy while he wait in room. I go other room with guard. He do what he want.Then he let me cross border with Elvis. Now I worry I have Romanian baby in me, so I go doctor in Bucharesti. He say I no tell you if you have Romanian baby if you no come into room with me. So he take me in other room and yes, he do same. Oh! Why mans do this to me? When Elvis say he have chance to go America, I say, Yes! Go! Be success! Then send for you mother. And you know what? He do it. What a son. But when I get here I find he poor. Can't pay rent. So we run. Now we here, man touch me, say who-ah, say get out. Oh!"

I didn't know what to say. Olga couldn't go on. She sat there, her head down, weeping. "Olga," I began, but she turned her tear-filled eyes to me and put two fingers to my mouth.

"I see, I feel all this," she managed, "and now I with you, in warm car, and you no hit me, you love Elvis, you help Bulgarian woman you don't know." She pried one of my hands from the steering wheel and held it in both of hers. I noted their warmth. And then she whispered, to herself as much as to me, "Yes, friend. God is good."

Having made her catharsis, and with her hope springing anew, the flesh of Olga's hand had grown so hot, she apparently hadn't noticed mine had run cold. I tried to pull away, but she held me tight. She must have known I would be her next big disappointment in life. But knowing and accepting are two different things. The path of least resistance for me was to affirm Olga's need for this moment of repose. It was this, and only this, which allowed us to drive on in peace under clearing skies.