FICTION: They Drive on the Left by Laurence Klavan

The apartment house was small, just six stories, and so much shabbier than its picture online that Rudy thought they must be on the wrong street. But, no, the number on the building corresponded to the one on the email confirmation he had folded in his jacket pocket and now was taking out to compare. Sweat from his pits (there had been no air conditioning on the train that took him and Rose from the airport into town) had seeped onto the sheet, softening the type, but he could still make it out—the same!

Rose was groggy from the sedatives she’d taken to fly (and they’d been held on the ground so long that she’d taken more than usual, concerned the first ones would lose their strength), so Rudy felt it was all up to him, the whole trip had been, even the idea for it, and now he said nothing to her about the small and shabby house.

“Yep,” he just announced, “this is it.”

They had never done this before, rented an apartment from a stranger overseas, but it was the thing everyone was doing, it was a lot cheaper than a hotel—they could cook at home if they had to—and Rose would appreciate privacy now since she was still unstable after her latest “episode” (breakdown) and didn’t need cleaning people and a concierge around. Rudy held the front door open for her, as they dragged their bags inside.

In a narrow vestibule, there was a note perched on a mailbox slot. It was from the owner, Anna Maria, addressed to “Rose and Roddy,” which Rudy decided to feel was a charming mistake. Anna Maria said that their flight had been so late she had had no choice but go to work and had left the keys with the bartender in the café next door.

Rudy waited a second. Weren’t transatlantic flights always erratic, he asked himself, swallowing down any audible disapproval so as not to unnerve Rose? Shouldn’t Anna Maria have anticipated this and made arrangements at her job? And why would she care that she was late? Wasn’t work taken less seriously in this country than it was in the States? Or—as Rudy had been hearing and had feared—was everything the same now everywhere, had everyone been made identical through technology and corporations and all the rest? He explained the situation to Rose, trying to stay buoyant, even though the fatigue he felt after not sleeping on the plane (he had stayed awake and let Rose sleep, in case she awoke and freaked out while flying, which she had done in the past) made it tough.

“What bar is open at nine A.M.?” he couldn’t help but ask aloud, as they took their bags out again, before he remembered that he was referring to rules in their own Puritan country, not to those in the country where they were. Or were they the same, as well, along with everything—

And in fact the place was closed.

Rudy blinked several times—not as people did in movies, to make sure he was seeing what he saw—to keep himself alert and maybe even buy some time before he blew up. Luckily, just as he was about to open his mouth, he saw a figure in the bar come into focus through the slightly tinted glass, swabbing down a counter.

Rudy tapped lightly on the glass, prepared to bang harder if he wasn’t heard. But it wasn’t necessary, the man looked up and squinted before coming forward to open the door.

Dressed with an apron over his clothes, he was slight yet muscled, swarthy, handsome, fortyish, almost a caricature of what people in his country were supposed to look like. He made Rudy and Rose stand in the street while Rudy spoke, not out of fear—they couldn’t have looked more mousy, middle-aged, and harmless, Rudy thought—because he clearly wanted to spend the least amount of time possible on their intrusion.

He stared blankly as Rudy went on, obviously understanding not a word of English. But hadn’t Rudy read that everyone there spoke English, that everyone everywhere did? Well, no one had told the bartender. Or was he actually the owner, and Rudy mustn’t insult him, even in his mind?

Rudy made what he believed was the universal gesture for “keys,” (pressing his thumb and forefinger together and “inserting” them into the air, a lock in other words) and said his name; but while it was obvious his name didn’t translate (and it rarely did; he had often been given ridiculous alternates in foreign language classes at school—Pierre or Javier—which amused the class no end), his mime act had. The bar man’s eyes opened and closed very slowly, as if he were enduring comprehension of what Rudy meant. He disappeared for a second and returned, handing Rudy a small envelope with a ridged object inside, on which an old address had been crossed out to accommodate some new indecipherable scrawl by Anna Maria (that’s how much care she’d put into the process, she hadn’t even bothered to use a new envelope).

“Thanks,” Rudy said, but the man was already waving them away, as if they were pests who never stopped coming around, no matter how many times he told them to stop.

Pulling their bags across the street again, sweating even more—though the temperature was cooler than at home, where it had been setting new records for June—Rudy spoke encouragingly to Rose. She barely registered any of it, the drugs in her system still obscuring her view of life, like a parent holding a hand over her daughter’s eyes, to mask, say, the sight of a squashed rat in the street.
“Won’t be long now,” Rudy said.

They climbed Anna Maria’s steep staircase, hopping the bags up behind them with an effort. Rudy remembered the woman had emailed that the apartment was on the second floor—but hadn’t they passed that two floors ago? Was her country’s number system not the same as their own? Rudy secretly reminded himself: he had wanted things here to be different, for he had wanted everything to be different (and better) for Rose, and that was why they’d come.

They reached the flat at last, and the key, freed from its envelope, went unusually into the lock, weirdly went counter-clockwise for it to be opened. Then the Morrises nearly fell inside, seeing a place that was “four rooms my ass,” Rudy thought; it was a lot more like three.

What had been described as “warm” and “roomy” was instead spare, austere, and small. There were few places to actually sit—a sofa and a few chairs without backs; Rudy could already feel the pain in his lower spine. Still, he said nothing and dropped his bags, his heavy eyes starting to flutter closed, now that he was allowed to let go and relax. The last things he saw before entering oblivion were: the bedroom, hardly “generous,” little wider than the hallway that led to it; its view through one window of a brick wall, not the “picturesque cityscape” promised; and a “queen-sized” bed that was a shallow mattress on the floor. He grunted, hitting it face down, feeling propelled like a suicide onto a street, and dragging Rose down with him (though it was she, of course, who had tried to take her life months before, with pills, not falling from their second story onto their lawn).

 

Rudy woke up in darkness so complete he could not see his own right hand, which had been crushed beneath his face and throbbed, its blood flow cut. Had he slept for the entire day, and now it was night? It must have been true. He tried to read a clock, placed above him on a rickety, emaciated table, but its face—not digital but an old second-hand type—was unlit and indecipherable. Flexing his fingers with excruciation, he groped for his jacket, which he had flung on the floor next to the bed. From the outside pocket, he stiffly retrieved his reading glasses and freed the stems from their cross-legged position. The action popped out one lens, which flew onto the floor, landing with a faintly discernible ping before ricocheting into the blackness.

“Shit!” Rudy said, loudly enough that Rose snarfed a bit beside him, before her mouth was covered by her pills, still powerful after, what, twelve hours of protecting her? Rudy remembered that he had left his other pair—and he always took two while traveling—in that little magazine hammock thing before him on the plane; he had realized it while being swept down the aisle after landing, crushed between overweight passengers and their overweight bags, unable to turn back. Clutching his glasses through the new hole where the right lens had been, Rudy fell asleep again, this time on his back next to Rose, the two looking like corpses uncovered and displayed after a crash.

 

“Is there a reason the lenses aren’t the same?”

Hours later, Rudy stood in the light again, in a drugstore he had found on the corner, a full day, he was almost sure, after they had arrived. He had left Rose in the apartment, eating the last bites of granola kept in a glass jar in Anna Maria’s kitchen, the only food they had found despite her guarantee of “a kitchen stocked with staples.” The cereal tasted different from the American kind, reminded Rudy of small, sharp kidney stones he heard some people kept after an operation.

He held up a new pair of glasses, which were the number he needed—2.5, close to where he’d “run out of road,” an ophthalmologist had told him—but which were blurry when he tried them on.

The pharmacist (sixtyish, bald, white-jacketed, foreign scientist-looking) didn’t understand a word and only shrugged with impatience. Still, Rudy figured he’d buy them, anyway, weary of  just using the left side of his frames and looking like a man with a monocle (even if the sight had made Rose laugh, her first positive expression after her pills had officially worn off about an hour ago).

Rudy slid his credit card onto the counter; he hadn’t brought much cash and had used most of the American bills he had changed for the train into town.

“No,” the pharmacist said, after pressing its numbers into a small, square, old-fashioned “credit card machine.”

“What do you mean? The card’s good.” It ought to be, Rudy thought: he paid them enough every month.

The man explained at length in his own tongue but Rudy couldn’t catch any of it (he’d tried to memorize a few phrases before coming, but it was too hard). Rudy shook his head, lost, and rolling his eyes, the pharmacist pulled over a young woman (attractive, sullen and sexy, Rudy thought, in her own white jacket), who didn’t smile at Rudy after he had.

“Give me your pin,” she said, curtly, pronouncing it “peen.”

“I don’t—know what you—“

“Peen. Peen,” she said again, “I need your peen.”

After a disoriented pause, Rudy grasped that U.S. credit cards required a special number in order to be used. But when had this happened? Was this an archaic rule or new? While he was wondering, the female pharmacist walked away, widening her eyes with exasperation, before her colleague nearly tossed Rudy’s card back at him and swiped the glasses from his hand, in case he intended to steal them.

*

Rudy had been told by anyone aware he was leaving that his bank card would work worldwide, that all financial systems were now linked as never before. But when he inserted his card in the nearest cash machine, he saw a message on the screen that, while untranslated, obviously said the transaction could not be completed. He inserted the card again and again, each time getting the same result, to the growing dismay of people in a line that had grown at his rear, like a trail of living waste he was with anxiety leaving behind.

As he fell away, for the first time, Rudy felt afraid, the way one does when a long-assumed defense against harm is no longer available (like the guy with a gun in the cop film who runs out of bullets and then throws the gun and runs—but wasn’t he always a villain?).

In the bank, a teller listened to his questions, politely, but only twitched a quizzical look and apologetic smile when he was done. Sighing, Rudy performed a new dumb show, one not dissimilar to his earlier performance, though his “inserting” gesture was now done with the bank card itself and so wasn’t as creative as when he had worked empty-handed.

The teller nodded, then with two fingers caught the card in mid-thrust both to stop Rudy and to reply.

“Not clear,” he said, which almost set Rudy off on a new, more affronted—and incoherent—rant. But he realized that the man had said, “cleared, not cleared,” the card hadn’t been cleared for local use, something Rudy didn’t know he had had to do. Before he left, the teller (now seeming almost frightened by Rudy’s ignorance) passed him a crinkled sheet with toll-free numbers for the bank’s headquarters worldwide.

Rudy had brought his cellphone on the trip (a simple, dated, flip-up model) but had not acquired the chip that would allow it to work overseas, fearing foreign fees. His stomach now hurting from hunger (and flashing on Rose left alone with no food in Anna Maria’s flat), he used his last bills to buy two bananas from a fruit cart in the street, the vendor (gnarled, white but brutally browned by the sun) taking them without telling him the cost.

The only public phone he found was in a nearby train station, a central hub where he was jostled by families, whose children yelled at him strange and discordant words apparently meaning “move!” On a wall in a dark corner, he saw a yellow pay phone, its color almost obscured by graffiti curse words and cartoons which made it more an obscene art work than an object of practical use. Repelled, Rudy picked up the receiver and was aware of caked dirt and dried human excretions speckled amid the political protests and pictures of penises. A teenager without the use of bandy legs collapsed beneath him sat to the side on the station floor, grinning and speaking nonsense to Rudy through the remains of caramel-colored teeth.

Rudy squinted blindly at the buttons, and stabbed at them, uncertainly. Then he put in local coins, almost exhausting his supply, only to hear that the number he had reached (the one on the sheet next to the letters “V.S.,” which he assumed stood for “U.S.”) had been disconnected.

 

Anna Maria had not gone far, Rudy knew, was in fact staying with a friend only two floors up. Before he was brave enough to return to Rose, he trouped up to the other woman’s flat and knocked, holding the second, uneaten banana in his free hand.

The woman who finally answered looked nothing like the web site photo of the renter. It must have been Anna Maria’s friend, Hildegarde, a squat young woman with wet hair the color of dirt, wearing a kimono with pictures of dead plants on it. She stared at the older, sweating, panting man before her with poorly disguised amusement.

“Is Anna Maria here?” Rudy asked, only every other word audible.

Hildegarde let out a malicious sniff before she turned and called unintelligible words into an immaculate apartment almost empty of furniture. A faint reply came from feet away, though Rudy—trying to spy past the woman—could see no one.

“No,” Hildegarde said, turning back, (or so Rudy believed, for he could not understand her), “Anna Maria’s not here.”

The woman seemed to struggle not to laugh, though her eyes were steely and filled with what appeared loathing.

“Well,” Rudy said, knowing he spoke as if in gibberish, too, but not caring, “tell her I have to ask her something, all right? You—” and here he stopped short of using an obscenity, for he feared that would translate, even if nothing else had.

As he walked down to their—to Anna Maria’s and their—apartment, he wondered what he had actually meant to ask her. If she might lend him money? Was it her fault he hadn’t known this country’s rules? Or had the rules recently changed to thwart him and others like him?

Rudy opened the door and found Rose sitting on a backless chair, looking relieved yet pale and giving him a shivering smile. His wife had a scarf wrapped around her scrawny shoulders and her translucent hands shook; it had become weirdly cold, and she had not packed a sweater, neither had. And now there was no money to buy one, which she didn’t know.

“Here,” Rudy said, absurdly, but he had no choice, placing Rose’s dinner, the banana, now browning, in her hand. She gratefully unwrapped it. “I’ll get you some water to wash it down with.”

Rudy went to the kitchen sink, where he dribbled a thin line of liquid from the faucet into a glass (the toilet had taken three flushes to do its job, too, as if people in this country evacuated less because they ate less than Americans). He looked through a small window opposite, which exposed the building’s backyard, shared with three other surrounding brownstones. Families were happily having dinner on blankets, their babies crawling undisturbed in the grass. All were young, blonde and beautiful; none were dressed to combat the cold; a few young women even sunbathed in bikinis nearby. One lying on her back with her top undone now turned over and, bare-breasted, stared up at Rudy. She smiled, baring her teeth and gums like a wolf. Vindictively, she was moving her hand into her bathing suit bottom when the slow-rushing water overflowed and slid into the space between Rudy’s fingers. Startled, wiping himself off, he turned away and wondered what he would tell Rose, whom he now heard faintly sniffle (a cold? Crying?) in the other room.

That night, having told Rose nothing, he fed her two pieces of strange bread he found in Anna Maria’s cabinet, which were so black they looked covered in dried blood. He broke off pieces infected by mold, which was an orange color and not the blue it was at home. As Rose slept beside him, sitting up on the living room sofa, he watched reruns of American situation comedies, dubbed by foreign voices that seemed to negatively comment on the action, and in such screamingly high-pitched voices that Rudy had to cover his ears. Just as he, too, fell asleep, he heard Rose whisper that she was “frightened,” but he might have been imagining it.

 

In the morning, Rudy realized that his toiletry kit, which had been examined with mysterious and hostile thoroughness at the airport, had been returned with items missing: two disposable razors, a toothbrush, and deodorant. After counting out the very last of his coins at the pharmacist, he found that he could afford to buy only one: he chose the razor. He was then shooed from the store by a suited security man, who knew enough English to say “holiday” as the reason, before locking the door. When he looked back while walking away, Rudy saw that the door had been reopened and a new customer was being welcomed in.

A little later, Rudy could not make Anna Maria’s drooping bathroom faucet produce more than a few drops, as if it were a penis afflicted with an STD. The new razor had jagged blades that cut his skin more than they removed his hair, and the shaving cream he’d brought from home made little lather in the new country. The cuts on his face did not stop bleeding, and the small amount of available water left Rudy’s lips cracked and bloodstained, too.

He encouraged Rose to swallow more pills, even though she claimed—rightly—that they had agreed she would take no more while on vacation. She was asleep when he left the apartment, convinced he could hear her stomach growl from many feet away.

The American Embassy was on the other side of town, but Rudy had no more money to take mass transit or a cab. Hours later, on foot, drowned in sweat, he was glad to see the building in the near-distance, its familiar flag waving to him above trees. It reminded him of a sturdy pioneer woman placing her laundry on a line, where it billowed—was that the word?—in the breeze. Yet he couldn’t get closer than where he was: a policeman stood before two wooden traffic barriers that blocked the street. Back home, these things were called “horses,” like the horse that the pioneer woman would ride—or the sheriff, her husband, would—one of them, anyway—but why was the cop looking at him with a mixture of pity and rage?

Rudy tried to dry his face, but it was too wet; he watched his skin grow as soaked and transparent as a paper towel on a spill; it was about to come apart in webby threads when the cop spoke.

“Something you don’t understand,” that’s what Rudy heard, as if the cop had been dubbed like those sitcoms but by him, Rudy, and badly.

Rudy wrinkled his brow, the universal symbol for “What?” Yet the cop was in the dark as to what it signified. He just continued to talk, and soon was illustrating his monologue with hand gestures and sound effects, some of which clearly depicted a bomb exploding (pushed-out cheeks, “boom” noise, outspread hands) and were followed by the cop pointing directly and several times at Rudy.

Rudy began to perceive that there had been a threat made against the Embassy, against Americans in general, and so against Rudy in particular, and it was all Rudy’s fault, he had provoked it, all of them had, nothing bad would be happening without their having brought it upon themselves. Rudy fought back, explaining in heedless English that he needed money, wanted food, had to speak to his Ambassador or just to someone on his side, for no one was, not there. He went into detail about his wife’s and his hopes for this vacation, and even did more acting of his own, gobbling imaginary pills, to play Rose in the recent past, which he was aware might be mistaken for the hunger he and she were now experiencing, but what else could he do he was no actor, he had only so many tricks up his sleeve.

The cop answered in turn, waving his hands in a slashing manner that suggested a conductor directing a savage piece of music, telling Rudy that his tiny problems didn’t matter, that they paled next to those he and others like him had created in the world (he did that “shrinking” thing with his thumb and forefinger), which were affecting him, Rudy, only in the easiest and most elite way possible, keeping him from calling on his ambassador. Boo hoo hoo, the cop said, and did the face of a crying baby, though the actual crying was coming from Rudy and was for real.

 

Rudy banged on Hildegarde’s door but got no answer, even though it was so late that both women had to be home, right, unless they were both still out like the drunken whores they were.

When he got back downstairs, he found Rose where he had left her, curled upon the bedroom mattress, her breathing shallow, her face gray. Rudy saw that the pill bottle was empty, but he couldn’t remember if he had tapped all the pills into Rose’s palm and snapped them into her mouth (like that trick his Dad used to do with a peanut, flicking it from the back of his hand toward his tipped-back head) or if Rose had taken them while he’d been gone. Either way, he had to call a hospital.

But 911 wasn’t the emergency number there—he only got a louder dial tone—and pressing “0” for an operator just initiated music, bizarrely and inappropriately peppy, the kind you might hear at a children’s puppet show in the park—Punch and Judy, that was their names. Wasn’t that what everybody called Rudy and Rose when they got married, before it all went south?

Rudy slammed down the phone but the noise was out-louded by that of the front door creaking open and slamming shut.

He looked up. A woman stood before him, lit dimly by a desk lamp he had turned on and tilted, creating a bright and spreading spot upon the wall.

“Who do you think you are?” asked Anna Maria (for this was who it was, he knew it wasn’t Hildegarde). She said it with a small but unidentifiable accent and in perfect English, the first time he had heard the language in what seemed months, which comforted him even though her tone was terrifying, the aural equivalent of someone tearing off his arm.

Anna Maria was small, muscular, bra-less, well-built, her blonde hair shorn close to her head. She was dressed in a T-shirt and khaki cargo shorts, like a world explorer, a citizen of the world, and anywhere from thirty to sixty years old.

“You think you can come here,” she said, “and everything will be fine. But it won’t be! Because, no matter what people say, we’re nothing like you!”

“But you—” he was stammering, “you invited us—anyone—a listing—an ad.”

“That’s right!” she said, and the last word was a whip that sheared off his eyebrows. She meant that this is what she had wanted to have happen by doing it, all along.

“But—my wife—I—we—need a hospital—food—and money. I’ll get it back to you.” Rudy meant the money, but it sounded as if he meant the food and hospital, too, which made Anna Maria smile.

“Now you’re just like everyone else on Earth!” she yelled, which was a steak sizzling on his skin. “Poor, hungry and sick!”

“Please.” Rudy left the couch where he was sitting, and the phone was decapitated and fell with a musical clang onto the floor. He stood before her, a prisoner allowed to speak before his sentence. “What can I do?”

Anna Maria considered the question, tanned hands on her slim hips above her many pockets. Then she unzipped the fanny pack he had neglected to mention was around her waist. “Get on the floor,” she said.

Minutes later, naked, Rudy did with her what people did everywhere, at home in America too, what he and Rose had often done, though not recently. But in her country, they did it a different way, and Rudy’s screams could be heard as high as the sky where the sun rose six hours later and as low as the road, where they drove on the left.

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Laurence Klavan has had short work published in The Alaska Quarterly, Conjunctions, The Literary Review, Gargoyle, Louisville Review, Natural Bridge, Pank, Failbetter, Stickman Review, Cafe Irreal, Litro, Morpheus Tales, and The Erotic Review, among many others, and a collection, “‘The Family Unit’ and Other Fantasies,” was published in 2014 by Chizine. An Edgar Award winner, he wrote the mystery novels, “The Cutting Room” and “The Shooting Script,” which were published by Ballantine Books. His graphic novels, “City of Spies” and “Brain Camp,” co-written with Susan Kim, were published by First Second Books at Macmillan and their Young Adult fiction series, “Wasteland,”was published by Harper Collins.  He received two Drama Desk nominations for the book and lyrics of “Bed and Sofa,” the musical produced by the Vineyard Theater in New York and the Finborough Theater in London. His one-act, “The Summer Sublet,” is included Best American Short Plays 2000-2001.

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