Apr/May 1999  •   Fiction


by Paul A. Toth

All the while I was growing up, Alex (my father is dead and I will call him what I want; I control things here) liked to roll the names of midwestern United States on his tongue: "Ohio," he would say, or, "Nebraska, Kansas," his ridiculous pronunciation making them sound like exotic planets. He told me when he said their names he imagined souls blowing across the plains. Then he would show me these states on a map. Then he would sit back in his chair and drink the coffee and smoke the cigarette. Then he would fall asleep in the chair, mumbling the names of obscure saints, snoring, dreams blowing out his nose. Then while he slept I would whisper to him, "Instead of me I could be an American girl, you know, dreaming of what it's like to be a Ukrainian girl." It happened exactly this way every night, until everything changed and the fable of the Kazlouskas took its mysterious turn.

It started with rumor, followed by intrigue and backdoor dealings, until finally of course communist theory and then communist practice fell apart. Even though I followed things on television and in the papers, the events leaked out of my mind. The past and present became interchangeable. Just as Alex's days at the factory had once stumbled one day into the next, so the factories began to close, ten folding into nine, nine into eight and so on until the husks of factories hung in the blue sky like broken-necked criminals.

One day I found a job at the brand new McDonalds. Alex stayed home or wandered the streets, smoking incessantly, trying to set himself on fire. He would visit me at the restaurant. "What is this goddamn music?" he'd ask, and I tried to explain the American love songs. "It's soothing," I said, because someone had told me the music was supposed to be soothing. "It doesn't soothe me," he said. "It makes me want to carve my fucking ear canals out of my skull."

"Daddy, it's a restaurant and they play music. It's an American restaurant so they play American music. If you buy enough hamburgers they give you a free cassette of the music and then the people who make the music get money from McDonald's, or something like that."

"This is not the Ohio I dreamed of. This is a nightmare."

"I have to make the french fries. The manager is coming."

He left and I stood there a moment wondering if this was how an American girl standing behind the counter at McDonalds in Ohio would feel—were we interchangeable? I wanted to find a penpal in Ohio and ask her questions about fathers; were they all so ridiculous? I caught my breath; it was trying to run away from me again. After I caught it, I thought some more about this American girl.

When I got home he was on his knees in the living room. I had never seen him pray. He said, "What the hell should I pray for? I've got every goddamn thing I asked for." He was silent for a minute and then he turned around and looked at me. He stood and dusted off his pants.

"What should we do tonight?" he asked.

"I'm going out with a few friends from work."

"Going out where?"

"To a club?"

"What kind of club?"

"A club."

"To hear that music?"

"Not that music, but still American music."

I wrote my name, "Ann Carol", at the top of the page. Then I took the assignment sheet and where it said, "I am ____________", I wrote, "Anna Kazlouska, daughter of Alexander Kazlouska", and where it said, I live in "__________", I wrote "Ukraine". I put down that I was 20 years old and that I worked in McDonalds (just like me in real life). I didn't even know if they had McDonalds in the Ukraine. To tell the truth, I found the name Kazlouska in a telephone book. I didn't even know if it was a Russian name, much less a Ukranian name. In fact, I found the Ukraine by closing my eyes and sticking my finger on the map.

I had to research the place I was supposed to be from, so I looked up newspaper stories. I didn't understand much except the economy was changing and a lot of Americans were investing. Anyway, when I thought of the Ukraine, I saw one of those decorations you pick up and shake and then it snows.

After filling in all the details, I began to see this Anna. Sometimes I could even think like her. I would lean across the counter at McDonalds, pretending I was her, thinking of people working in America, wondering if they liked it better or worse. Her breath would try to run away with starfish and boys spilling out its pockets and she would have to take a deep breath to keep everything that belonged to her inside.

I knew I'd outgrow all of this sooner or later but I had fun imagining. I controlled everything.

I named my imaginary American friend "Ann Carol"—it sounded American. I was thinking more and more about her lately. My father was driving me crazy and it helped to think in different voices when I found him sitting with his head against the window saying, "Well if you're not going to give me something to pray about then I don't know what the fuck you want." While I had to comfort him, Ann would say, "This is bullshit. He's praying like a lunatic. God will kill him for that."

What is it that makes fathers get this way? He was acting more and more desperate and saying awkward things wherever he went. Neighbors were stopping by and asking me, "Why does Alex say our souls are flying away?"

Then he went around to all the stores and restaurants, harassing the managers. "Why do you play this shit? Can't you play our music or even Russian music? This music makes me want to die." I had only heard about this, but I didn't have to see it happen to know the looks he must have gotten, nor that people were saying, "No son of mine is going to be seen with Anna, daughter of the lunatic Alex Kazlouska." I could imagine the stories they were inventing about me.

Soon, he came to believe the American music was a sign, and his religious visions began. He never spoke of them, but I found his diaries one day when I was cleaning his room. He must have kept his diaries hidden all these years.

This one was titled "Volume 24". I only dared read a few passages before replacing it beneath the fold of the blankets (he would bark at me later for not making his bed, but if I had made the bed, how then would I have hidden the diary without him knowing that I had found and probably read it?).

June 1. This morning, as I lay almost awake but not yet thinking, I dreamed my wife was on her knees, kissing, suckling even, the toes of one of those managers, while tiny, nearly invisible angels buzzed in and out of her ears. She swatted them away like flies. Meanwhile, I was conducting the music that played behind them—that is always playing everywhere—puppet strings attached to my limbs being snapped and tugged by the President of the United States, who wore a Christlike robe and glowed like an apparition.

June 5. Wearing a costume fashioned of black, oiled feathers and helmet shaped like a bird's head, the beak a spindle, I climb to the roof of the apartment and shout in an unintelligible language full of holy meaning. Then I swoop down over the crowds in the street, slashing the fleeing shoppers with my beak, the flapping of my wings creating hurricane winds, buildings collapsing everywhere.

I summoned Ann, who traipsed through the door with a kind of glide, as if on roller skates, mocking the solemnity of the moment. How much easier it must be for Americans, I thought, turning towards her. She merely held her finger to my mouth, shushing me, and then giggled, as though this were the most common, the most everyday occurrence imaginable, not to be worried about any more than a ruined basket of fries.

"Oh Anna," she said, "just a single a's difference between our names and yet here you are, a crazy little school girl running away from kooties. A school cat, scratching at everything with your paws, just about to jump straight out of your fur..." She talked as though narrating a film made for children. She was starting to get on my nerves.

After our projects were graded (mine received a "B+"), we were given the option to become penpals with someone from the country we had chosen. At first, I thought I would try to find a girl named Anna. However, I felt I already knew my Anna and, to be honest, we were growing a little tired of each other; we didn't have much to talk about and we began to argue—if you can argue with an imaginary friend. After a while I simply forgot about her. I had real friends right here in America and I don't know why I got so mixed up thinking about another girl in another place all the time. I suppose I thought someone from somewhere else might understand things better, like a psychologist or something.

Anyway, if you're wondering, I stayed in Ohio right on through college and though I'm not married yet, I expect to marry one day, and when I do, you can be sure that we will live our lives in Ohio, as I am quite sure that anything you might find anywhere else in the world you can find right here in Ohio.

After my father went completely mad, he had to spend many months in the hospital before he finally died. Fortunately, there was no music in the hospital and he passed his last days quite peacefully, though most of that peace was the result of heavy sedation.

At any rate, he arranged to complete his will before he went certifiably insane, even managing to have it witnessed by not one but two distant relatives (that is, they lived far enough outside of town not to have heard the rumors). I do believe that Ann was looking over my shoulder when I read the words: "For Anna, I have arranged to have all of my savings and my few assets liquidated and converted into an airline ticket to America. You might as well go there, as it is already here. Signed with love, Papa Alex Kazlouska."