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Lana Spendl

Lana Spendl

Lana Spendl is a Pushcart-nominated writer who holds an MFA in creative writing and an MA in Hispanic literatures from Indiana University. Her creative work and reviews have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Greensboro Review, Indiana Review, Atticus Review, Monkeybicycle and Prick of the Spindle.

The Accident

In coat and heels, Ana burst into the entrance hall of the school building. She struggled to close her umbrella, then hurried—knock knock knock against the parquet—down the corridor of closed offices. Her meeting had spilled into the late afternoon and she was late in picking Damir up. She had called the school from the office, from the tram, from the wet pavements near the school house, and no one had bothered to pick up, no one had bothered to return her messages, no one had bothered to show any acknowledgement whatsoever that a child had been left alone on the premises. Over and over again she pictured Damir walking off into the rain or getting into the back of a stranger's car, but she covered these fears with a tight steel lid and focused instead on hating the incompetence of Sarajevan officials.

The third door to her right stood ajar and she pushed it open with her fingers. Inside, the white walls glowed bluish with the light of day. A desk sat in the center, and by the windows, a large woman stood observing the rain and the bobbing branches outside. Her arms hung before her, hands clasped at the crotch.

Ana knocked against the doorframe.

The woman turned and took an in-breath. "Are you Damir's mother?"

Damir's crying face flashed before her eyes and she strode into the room. "What happened?"

"The school day ended two hours ago."

Ana's concern vanished. The school day had in fact ended just over an hour ago. She had glanced at her watch before stepping into the schoolyard.

"My watch must be slow," she said. Then, thinking better of it and remembering her tendency to grip things by the neck before their time, she added, "I'm sorry. I had a situation at the office and could not get here sooner. I left several messages but no one responded."

The woman's eyes dropped and she stepped to her desk to straighten a few files. Rain pattered against the windows. She grabbed a pair of scissors at the edge of the desk and slid them into the pen holder.

Ana waited. Then, "If you point me in the direction of my son, I'd be happy to get out of your way."

"Your son"—the woman looked up as if she had been waiting to say her piece—"is being entertained by Milan Ibramovic, the second-grade teacher, who is a man with a family, and whose wife and children are probably wondering if something happened to him on the way home for their evening meal."

The lawyer in Ana wanted to reply that they need not fret, since we lived in an age of telephones, and cellular ones at that, but she straightened her spine, gave a hollow apology, and repeated that she had left several messages and that, to her dismay, no one replied.

The woman pursed her lips as if sucking on a sour candy. "I'll get him. There is no point in having you wander aimlessly around the school."

Ana stepped into the hallway, bothered, clutching her purse to her side as if she were still avoiding pickpockets on the tram. The stress of the day had gotten into her neck and shoulders, and the last thing she needed was a life lesson from the school secretary.

The architect had been positively vile in the office today: he had accused her of not doing her job, he had gesticulated like a madman, he had left the room. She was a lawyer in urban planning, and she had found yet another problem with the residential housing project the architect-engineer-surveyor team was planning next to the site of the future expressway. It was the architect's problem, not hers. Yet the man—much like her ex-husband—had a way of blaming her for his mistakes.

   

       
Ana's ex-husband Goran had been misunderstood, messy-haired and unhappy. He believed the world owed him pearls and emeralds because he had graced it by crawling out of his mother's vaginal tract.

Ana had fallen for him out of rebellion, rebellion at thirty one, and she had relished raising her chin up at her Muslim aunts and telling them that he was Catholic and eight years younger and that he was a musician who worked at his cousin's perfume shop to pay the bills. They had had a life full of outings and brandy and glittery excitement in those days, and they went to bars and restaurants and cafes and Goran kissed at her neck and she hurled jokes at his friends. She felt invincible, and she felt wanted.

Then they married. Then he started snapping at her. Then he wanted to be left alone in the spare room of their apartment and she was not allowed to touch his sheet music or his instruments or go near that one corner in the living room because she might trip the cords over with her feet. She felt lost. She felt disoriented. She did not feel like the same person she had once been, but like a bloated, clumsy, unnecessary presence. A pink fluffy pompom on the front of a house slipper. And when he started rushing out at night in his open coat without telling her where he was going, she remained in the silence of their lighted kitchen and finally understood the deep loneliness her late parents had talked about most of their lives.

The Bosnian conflicts started in '92. Gunshots rang through the streets of Sarajevo at night. Goran told her, his eyes on the ashtray, that she should travel north to Slovenia until it all subsided and stay with his mother and cousins. He could put her on a bus. She glared at him in disbelief. He wanted to be free of her, was that it? He wanted to go out at night and touch those sluts he'd been eyeing? She stayed in the apartment to spite him and held back tears as she washed her hair and neck and arms in the bathtub.

And then the clouds rushed in and covered their sky. Sarajevo went under siege. Snipers, like the eye of God, positioned themselves on mountains and in tall buildings and decided when to kill this one or maim that one. People dashed across city squares, and at the sound of a shot they fell with their market bags and did not move again. Weeks without electricity followed. Water shortages. The burning of car tires for heat. The boiling of tree roots for food. And Goran came to her and she felt sad for him—sad like a country mother in a head kerchief—and she let him hug her and kiss her and yell at her and fuck her by the bathtub on the cold tile floor.

And then, as if from the heights of Mount Olympus, the peace treaty descended upon them—they were told about it on the television—and all that remained in them was the hate for the Orthodox brothers who had attacked them and the persistent tendency to duck upon hearing the explosive backfire of a tailpipe.

Damir came three years later, with a squished-up face and tiny hands which gripped at her fingers and chin and breasts. She opened again suddenly to warmth and tears and laughter and love, and she burped him and cradled him and protected him from the grabby hands of old women in the streets. Goran faded away to his bars—she did not turn to watch him go—and within a year he asked for a divorce. She felt bitter, of course, but it was not the desperate bitterness and jealousy from before. Rather, it was a bitterness which congealed against the new steadiness of her mind like an icicle, and she helped him pack and waved him off and changed the locks and started the divorce proceedings. As the mother, she obtained full custody and a portion of every paycheck Goran received.

A few years later, while leading Damir by the hand, she saw Goran across the

street. She turned the boy's attention to the mannequin in the window—it was

posing with a tennis racquet—and when she looked again, Goran was gone. She felt discomfort then—a faint reminder of drab afternoons and helplessness and years gone by—but she was solid and unmovable now, and she let her discomfort go by the time she and Damir climbed the steps to their apartment and unlocked the front door.

 


A shuffling sounded down the hall. The school secretary in her sensible flats. Ana, tight-lipped, turned to read an announcement on the wall while the woman slipped back into her office. Then she heard that familiar giggle. Her cheeks and neck warmed and Damir's happy face flashed before her eyes before she spun around to face him.

He walked with a man. The man was fat and sported a comb over and a suit jacket. He rested a big hand on Damir's shoulder as they walked, and he leaned into the boy's face and said things of importance and the boy listened. Damir walked tall for the man, even though his general tendency was to slouch. Ana shrank at their intimacy.

"Damir," Ana said. She raised her angular chin up in defiance.

The boy turned and saw her. He broke from the man and ran to her with his backpack bouncing and slipped his arms inside her coat and squeezed her waist and pressed his cheek to her breast. She relaxed into his warmth—a smirk pulled at her lips—and she ran a hand through his hair and kissed the crown of his head. His hair felt rough; he had likely played hard today.

"Mama, mama," he said. He twisted his head to look up into her face and poked her in the breast with his chin.

"What?" She laughed and pressed a hand to her chest to soothe the spot.

"Do you know who the dictator in Spain was?"

She felt playful, like a child revealing a big dark secret, and she leaned into his face so that their noses almost touched and said, "Franco."

"You know!" He was delighted. He let her go and turned to face his teacher and stood up straight and slipped his thumbs beneath his backpack straps. "She knows!"

"Your mother is a smart woman." The man stepped up, stomach first.

There was a sleaziness about him—testosterone doused in cologne—and she disliked him instantly.

The man nodded his approval and crossed one arm across his chest, hooked his elbow in it, and rested his face in his hand. He looked uncomfortable and ridiculous in the pose and his jacket stretched tight across his shoulders. "But does she know"—he squinted his eyes—"does she know the year that Franco died?"

Her jaw tightened. She had little patience for being tested. She pulled a folded-up raincoat from her purse, knelt down, and began to adjust it over Damir's head. She muttered, "One has a hard time keeping up with the politics of this country, much less those of other regions."

The man fell silent. Then he plunged his hands into his trouser pockets, jingled his coinage, and said, "Very true, very true."

"Well"—Ana grabbed her umbrella from the floor, rose to her feet, and took the boy's hand in hers—"thank you kindly for your multitude of attentions, but we must be off."

The secretary, complete with jacket, purse, and keys, exited her office and turned to lock the door.

Ana eyed her and continued in a flat tone, "We know that you have a wife and children and that they have been waiting for you for their evening meal and that they're likely wondering if something happened to you on the way home from school."

The secretary's looked at her in horror. Ana felt a jolt of amusement.

"What?" The man frowned, glancing back at the secretary as well. "No, no, no, no, no. I often stay late to prepare for the morning. Damir helped me prepare tomorrow's lesson. Didn't you, my boy?"

Damir beamed. Ana pressed him to her side a bit more roughly than usual.

"Your car is not parked too far from here?" the man wanted to know.

"I don't have my car."

"You mean you will walk?"

"I do."

The secretary was having some trouble with the lock. Ana felt tempted to come to her aid: the woman was kind enough to teach her a life lesson, the least that she could do was show her how to lock a door.

"You cannot take him out in this," the man said. "I will give you a ride."

"You will do no such thing."

"I insist."

"I insist that you don't."

"But think of Damir, think of the boy. He'll be soaked through and through, and when he comes down with something in the morning, what will you and your husband do?"

"We've been through worse."

"Mama," Damir tugged at her hand. "I'll be soaked through and through."

Was the universe mocking her?

"Look," the man who couldn't get a clue continued. "It's no trouble. No trouble at all. I'll get my coat and pull the car around. We'll have you back at your place, dry and safe, in no time. The rain's furious today." He gestured toward the windows near the main doors. "Furious."

Everyone turned to look. As if Mother Nature had heard him, a powerful rush of water hosed over the glass. Perhaps he was right. Damir would get soaked. Ana's breath grew shallow. She hated giving in. She noticed the secretary looking at the windows, looking at her, looking at the man's greasy comb over. It occurred to her that she might get a smidgeon of pleasure from this situation yet.

"Fine," she declared.

The secretary's chin quivered in humiliation. She locked the door with sudden force, pushed past Ana, and headed toward the main doors.

 

Minutes later, Milan Ibramovic eased his old Volkswagen into the school driveway and parked near the awning. He hopped out and, covering his head with a folded newspaper, ran round the car to open doors for them. The gesture was impractical and unnecessary and Ana stumbled over him to get into the front and almost cursed under her breath.

Once inside, she flipped down the mirror and wiped away the water droplets from her cheeks with her fingers. Then she scrutinized the dusty dashboard and the pine freshener hanging from the rearview mirror. Folk music—a man's wavering remixed  voice—played on the radio, and as the teacher adjusted himself behind the wheel, Ana averted her eyes. It was the painfully traditional music of the illiterate masses, and it spoke of tears and brandy and pain and of women who abandoned you after making you love them. She wondered whether her son's teacher had ever been young and interesting. She wondered where he had been when she had gone to rock concerts in her youth and sat on Goran's shoulders and looked at the stage over a sea of heads.

"It's about fifteen minutes away," she told the man and turned to look at Damir, who had opened his backpack and was rearranging its contents.

They drove toward Zvornicka Street. The wipers wiped frantically. The man sat leaning toward her, lopsided, as if the car's interior was too small for him. She kept her body pressed against her door. Outside, a stray dog sneezed into the rain.

"Damir was very helpful to me today," the man said, proud, puffed up, aware of his desire to please the boy, aware that his was a noble and gallant intention.

Instantly, Damir moved to the center of the back seat and poked his blond head through the space between them.

"We talked about a lot of things. Didn't we, Damir?"

"Yeah," her boy said, and his little voice went to the core of her, but she felt protective and hesitant and uncertain about the fact that it was being used in the presence of this man she did not like. "Mama," the voice continued and the little fingers grasped at the sleeve of her coat. "Did you know that all the girls in Spain wanted to be like the queen? Isn't that right, teacher?"

Milan Ibramovic glanced at her sideways to gauge interest and then began in a deep and self-important tone. "This is true. Queen Isabel, though. Not the current queen. No, no, no." A finger was shaken in her face. "During the dictatorship, there was a magazine called Y. Just like that. The letter 'y.' Because that's how her name was spelled. In the old Castilian. Not the new Castilian."

Was Damir truly finding all this interesting? She looked at his profile.

He gaped at the man—an orphan eyeing a feast—and then he remembered himself  and closed his mouth and swallowed hard and turned to her with the most curious expression. It was an uncertainty, a need, a desire for her to confirm that what the man was saying was important and had value. The look both tugged at her and left her self-protective. It was the same look Goran would give her after fingering the strings of his guitar. It was a look she had learned not to give into, because it drained her muscles dry and because she could never satisfy what was behind it. But this was her child.

She paused, uncertain. She did not want to engage this man. He was arrogant and ignorant and he would push into her business the second she cracked the door open—and she had forgotten how to be friendly with grown men, in any case—but Damir still sat there, looking and needing and waiting. She wished that she could soothe him with the caress of a hand, with a kiss to the temple, but he wanted this, and her resolve broke and she softened and stopped pressing her body to her door and sat in the center of her seat and turned to the man and said, "How interesting."

And then it happened. The dam broke. He became animated and loud and boisterous and told her of the years of hunger in Spain and of the republicans in the hills and of Franco's televised funeral, and he spoke and spoke and spoke and spoke until the car was full of poverty and war and famine and fear and then he made a joke to Damir and glanced into the rearview mirror and ran straight through a red light.

 


The red minivan came from the right. It crashed into the front bumper and carried them all to the corner of the intersection where the Volkswagen hit a traffic sign. Ana's head swung forward and back against the headrest. A silence followed. Then someone honked somewhere, perhaps a pensioner who was late in processing things.

Milan Ibramovic—a flurry of concern and activity—leaned into her face with his hot breath. "Are you okay?" When she nodded, pressing her fingers to her temple, he looked into the back seat. "Are you okay?" he repeated. Then he was off—off to the front of the car—to crouch down and touch his hand to the wrinkled bumper.

Rain pounded against hood. Rain pounded against his bald head, ruining his combed over hairdo. He jogged to his seat, grabbed the newspaper and, covering his head, hurried back to the bumper.

Ana's unclasped her seatbelt and looked into the back seat. Damir sat in the corner with his knees to his chest and his face buried in his arms. Waves of fear and urgency flooded her torso and arms and she stepped onto her seat with a foot in order to push her body into the back but she hit her head against the hard ceiling and whimpered. Pressing a hand to her crown, she stumbled out her door and touched her palms to the car's windows and trunk to find her way in the rain. She opened Damir's door and pulled him into her arms. She had not lifted him in years and he was too heavy but she wanted his chest to beat against her chest and she wanted the warm litheness of his body. He wrapped his legs around her waist and buried his face into her neck and she held the back of his head with a hand like she had done when he was a baby.

A siren sounded nearby or perhaps far away and she looked around and around in the rain, down one street and then another, and she was not sure where she was anymore. The buildings stood blurry and stark and lifeless. Then she noticed the wetness of the rain and the chill against the back of her neck, and she thought that Damir might get sick and she thought that she must save him and she thought of snipers in the tall buildings and she crouched to slide him into the dryness of the car. He clung to her—his arms and legs would not let her go—and she stumbled a little and got in after him.

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