From behind the wheel of the Volvo wrecker Janek looked at the Iraqi girl splayed in the dirt. Vaclav, riding shotgun, crossed himself, kissing the nub where his thumb used to be. He got the silver flask from the glove box and took a long hard pull, and then wiped his mouth. It could be Dari, he said, referring to his daughter, home in Plezn.

    Flies buzzed around her body, ghostly, with its pale shroud of dust. In her hand she clutched a bottle of water.

    The convoys had halted and U.S. and British troops milled about with dogs, goats, and more children. An officer wiped sweat from his face with a camouflage rag as he negotiated a price for the girl’s life with her father. A woman soldier covered the little girl’s body with a military blanket and a journalist snapped photographs. The Pakistani truck driver who’d thrown the water bottle to the little girl, causing the accident when she ran out to the road to fetch it, sat drawing circles in the dirt with a stick. Above the din, the keening ululations of the mourners rose like waves of heat.

    There wasn’t much for the wrecker crew to do—a six-year-old doesn’t damage an eighteen-wheeler much.

    Tears welled in Vaclav’s pale eyes to run down his cheeks and drip from the rusty wires of his beard. Janek longed to pull him close, to cradle his big lion’s head and comfort him. Instead, he gripped the wheel with both hands and looked straight ahead, past the girl, one moment alive and full of possibilities, the next, rotting in the sun.

    I love you, Janek whispered.

    What? Vaclav wiped his eyes and thumped him on the shoulder. We're like brothers, yah? He took another slug from the flask.

    Janek exhaled. Yah. Brothers. He shifted gears and pulled over to let an American Humvee pass. Brothers in hell. The two men knocked knuckles in a gesture of solidarity and then phoned their supervisor to request permission to leave the scene.

    That night Janek lay on his cot in the Kuwait border-town compound where KBR housed them, hands folded atop his heart, feeling its beat. He and Vaclav had drunkenly vowed to live the rest of their lives fully and without regrets as homage to the girl in the dust, to give her death meaning. They’d raised their glasses and seared their throats with absinthe.

    The walls of the compound were cracked, and the moonlight slipped through like quicksilver. Vaclav snored lightly in an adjacent cot, his beautiful face slack in the blue light pouring in through the wavy glass of the window, his thumbless hand pillowing his tawny head. Janek had become too emotional with Vaclav at the death scene, sometimes his impulses—

    The desert air was soft and bore the scent of war. Janek closed his eyes to press in every moment to his memory. He fell asleep to the lullaby of Vaclav’s breathing, and dreamt of a boy he knew in school.


The dark-skinned boy, a Cikán, took to squatting near the schoolyard field at St. Nicola’s to watch soccer practice. From his goalie’s post, Janek watched him furtively when the ball was in play at the opposite goal. When he was defending, he could feel the gypsy’s eyes on him.

    Janek went out for the soccer team the year he was twelve. Before he was born, his three sisters and mother weighted one end of the gender pole, leaving his father floundering and unbalanced at the other. From a very young age Janek felt his father’s large investment. He alone could prevent the family name from extinction, the family’s crown prince. We men have to stick together, his father said daily during the years of growing up.

    Janek wasn’t crazy about sports but he knew how proud and happy it made his father if he participated. He was a competent goalie and he enjoyed the masculine camaraderie of the locker room, but he would have preferred poring through the latest issue of Vogue. When he was ten he sketched a dress for his oldest sister’s graduation ball. She’d squealed when he’d shown her the drawing, and then he had sat by at the dressmaker’s shop, lording over the details.

    The night of the ball Ana floated into the kitchen billowing layers of silk organza the colors of seashells, Janek in bashful attendance. Their mother had slapped a hand to her throat, her face wide with surprise. His other sisters had yelped, Me! Me!—and clamored for a Janek original. His father’s eyes, usually soft and full of good humor, were hard and black, and quickly looked away when Janek shot him a tentative, flushed glance.


Janek and Vaclav had three months left before their contract was up. Vaclav was going to use the money to buy an auto repair shop in Plezn. His wife was expecting another child, a boy. Janek hadn’t taken the bleak job for the money—his family had plenty and they’d been devastated by his decision to go to a war zone. He’d just finished law school and had become engaged to a beautiful woman, but Janek had been determined to get away to someplace harsh, self-flagellating, where he could both think and escape his thoughts. He signed onto the KBR wrecking crew on impulse, telling his family and fiancée that his life had been too cushy; he needed to grow a spine. Despite his father’s protests, Janek knew he was secretly proud. You are a fine son, his father had told him, his voice breaking. Go with God.

    Vaclav showed Janek photos of his wife and his daughter, a poodle named Noodle, their small, neat home in Bohemia. Janek showed pictures of Petra, tall, long-necked and sleepy-eyed, nipples poking a thin tank top. Behind her, the Pyramid of the Sun at the ruins of Teotihuacan stood in the haze. She grinned lopsidedly, shielding her face, the glitter of a diamond solitaire on her left hand.

    A beauty! How does one ugly guy get a girl like that? Vaclav said happily.

    Janek emailed his parents and told them not to worry about him. He hinted at the ribald activity at the compound, courtesy of KBR, their employer. He knew that Vaclav was tempted by the sultry whores, the metallic sheen of their oiled legs, their waxy red lipstick on long, slim cigarettes. They sipped iced vodka perched on stools like exotic birds in the compound’s cantina.

    Which will I regret more, Vaclav asked hoarsely, fucking them—or not fucking them? He looked at the photos of his family, prayed to the Virgin, and jerked himself off. Janek sketched the whores in notebooks, drew them in gypsy rags, and jerked himself off.

    He emailed Petra about the war and the Arabs, and about his bunkmate, Vaclav. He described Kuwaiti villages and Iraqi children, and the Aegean Sea of Vaclav’s eyes. Our sail in the Cyclades? Just like that, he wrote. Hair like copper scouring pads! Imagine—he lost his thumb to a wolf! And he plays the violin, thumbless!

    I look forward to meeting him. And his wife, Petra replied.

    He worked in his sketchbook on Petra’s wedding dress, the big society wedding at St. Nicola’s Cathedral next Christmas. He wanted halogen pin spots focused on Petra’s crystal-dusted veil to make it sparkle like a fresh snowfall as it drifted behind her. He envisioned the incandescent cream silk satin of the strapless bodice against her pale olive skin, the gown draping on the bias from her perfect proportions—how she inspired him!

    He was designing clothes for the whole wedding party. Even his father would wear a tuxedo designed by Janek to his only son’s wedding.


After a tough practice Janek’s team had been ebullient, shoulder slapping and goosing each other in the revelry and spirit of good gamesmanship. Janek had glanced to where the Cikán boy crouched. Their eyes had met and held.

    Janek went in to shower with the others and dawdled in the locker room until most everyone had left. He then walked out toward Otakar II Square, and the gypsy boy stepped out of the gloaming to join him. They did not speak to each other as the boy, maybe fifteen, spoke only Romani.

    Janek’s father always spat the word “Cikán” like a bad oyster.

    They walked in silence through the Square until they reached the fountain, where they sat on a stone bench, the wind fresh with autumn, ruffling the boys’ hair. Streetlights flickered on and the aroma of baked sugar wafted in the air. Brittle leaves skittered across the cobblestones.

    The gypsy boy had warm, whiskey colored eyes, and curls like bronze springs. Silky hair darkened his highly curved upper lip. The gypsy boy leaned forward and kissed Janek fully on the mouth, filling it with his tongue, richly spiced with cloves. Janek felt the world swirl vertiginously around him; he closed his eyes. The boy placed Janek’s hand on the hard throb at his crotch while simultaneously fondling Janek, who ejaculated, his first time—a whirling shock of disgust and elation, self-hatred and burning love. Janek broke the kiss and drew back, slamming the heel of his hand hard into the boy’s nose and upper lip, and then he ran, the virgin semen trickling sticky down his inner thigh.

    That night watching the television news with his father, a story ran about vandals who had thrown buckets of feces and urine onto the dance floor of a gay bar in Prague. They showed a young gay man crying, mascara and feces dripping down his face. Janek’s father snorted.

    Buzerant! Janek spat with disgust. And he and his father laughed.

    We men have to stick together, his father said.

    Yah, Papa, Janek said, his mouth hot with cloves.


He and Petra watched a silly American husband-and-wife spy movie. He’d been home for six months now, leaner and harder than the boy who left for Iraq a year and a half ago. Petra stroked his steely, muscled belly and dipped her fingers inside his jeans toward his genitals. She turned to kiss his cheek. One more month, she whispered in his ear. Janek watched Brad Pitt sweating, cocking a firearm.

    This is too stupid, he said, turning the DVD off with the remote. He reached for her breast and she gave a little moan. He turned his face to kiss her, the image of Brad Pitt blazing in his brain.


Vaclav and his family came by train from Plezn to Ceské Budejovice for the wedding, and Janek went to the station to meet them. The men hugged heartily and unabashedly wiped tears away on their sleeves. Vaclav introduced his wife Daniela, a willowy brunette with pale, translucent skin and dark, tired circles beneath soft brown eyes. She carried the baby, and Dari, their little girl, held her father’s hand and stared up at Janek.

    The wedding Mass was to be on Sunday. Saturday was the rehearsal followed by dinner at the Grand Hotel Zvon, where many of the wedding guests from out of town were staying, including Vaclav and his family. Vaclav was to be the best man and Dari would strew rose petals down the aisle, along with Petra’s twin nieces.

    The rehearsal went smoothly and they all welcomed the idea of champagne and a good meal. The wedding party took their places at the elegantly set tables and everyone toasted the bride and groom on the eve of their wedding. The white-gloved waiters were beginning to bring in silver tureens of fragrant South Bohemian potato soup when the slicked-back bronze waves of one of them made Janek inhale sharply. Janek had not seen him since that evening fifteen years ago, though the boy had shadowed him like a wraith. Panic seized him to see the revenant fully fleshed, and his impulse was to bolt. Would the Cikán remember him? Janek had grown nearly half a meter since their last encounter, and now wore a mustache and beard. He wasn’t sure if the boy had ever known his name.

    The gypsy had the same petulant pout and whiskey eyes. He wore small gold hoop earrings, a silver stud above his right eyebrow, and black eyeliner. His jaw had thickened and the planes of his face had sharpened. As Janek watched him, another waiter breezed by and subtly brushed the back of his hand against the gypsy’s crotch, and Janek felt a surge of jealous rage. Clove-scented saliva flooded his mouth.

    Your soup’s getting cold, Petra said, lightly touching his thigh. Janek jumped like she’d zapped him with an electric prod.

    You’re pale, she said. What’s wrong? What are you looking at? She looked to where he’d been staring.

    Janek turned to face her. I can’t wait to fuck you, he said. That’s all. Petra smiled, ducked her head, touching her fingertips to her flushed chest.

    All through dinner Janek furtively watched the waiter, who was glassy-eyed and indifferent to everyone as he served and cleared plates. Vaclav got very drunk and his wife, obviously irritated, finally bid everyone goodnight and hauled her roaring husband upstairs. Petra too, made her exit, claiming her need for beauty sleep. She kissed Janek goodnight, a lingering, wet kiss, full of suggestion and champagne. She was spending the night at the hotel; Janek was going home to his apartment on the other side of the square, where they would live. They planned to honeymoon in Paris after spending their wedding night in Prague. Then he would begin a new position in international law as junior partner in his father’s firm. Their life would be elegant and social, and he would design dresses as an avocation, inspired by his beautiful muse—his wife—the future mother of his children. They would live happily, entangled in the joy and occasional sorrow of family life.

    Janek’s parents bid goodnight to their son. God answered all my prayers with you, Janek’s father said, his voice tender and catching. He embraced his son, and Janek felt a new fragility in his father, an anticipation of loss. Papa, he said, holding him tightly.

    But Janek didn’t go home. He drank a cognac at the hotel bar and watched the kitchen. Around eleven the Cikán came out in faded jeans and a thick, cable knit sweater. He swigged beer from a bottle and carried a plate of eggs that he set down at the far end of the bar to eat. Janek watched, barely breathing, a dark heat spreading in his belly. The gypsy ate his eggs, and lit a cigarette. He raised his eyes and focused on Janek, now delirious with longing. Their eyes locked.

    The groom, the Cikán said, smoke streaming from his nostrils. He stubbed out his cigarette in his plate and leaned back in the chair, clasping his hands behind his head and looking at Janek through heavy lids. Every groom deserves a boy’s night out, he said.

    Let’s go, Janek said thickly. He threw back the rest of his cognac. And they left.


Two hours before the ceremony, Vaclav, his head aching from the night before, gulps aspirin. His wife has taken the children downstairs to look at the Christmas tree in the lobby. A light snow has begun to fall. Janek paces nervously.

    I’d be worried if you weren’t nervous, Vaclav says. He pulls out the old silver flask from under his pillow and offers it first to Janek, who defers. Vaclav takes a long pull from it.

    Do you think you should have that before the wedding? Janek asks. He wonders how much Vaclav drinks. He drank heavily in Iraq. They all did.

    Now you sound like Daniela, Vaclav says. He takes another swallow and then remembers the magazine article, and pulls it out of his suitcase.

    Look, the little girl. There she is in the dust, and there’s our wrecker. See? That’s you. A famous guy.

    It’s a special war issue of Time. In the photo, the dead girl’s body is covered with a blanket and Janek is visible in the cab of the wrecker, his hands gripping the wheel and staring straight ahead. Vaclav is a shadow next to him, but the glint of his tears is visible, caught by a sharp reflection of sun from something on the instrument panel. Janek’s elbows begin to ache, and he rubs them.

    He’s been with women. His first was one his father arranged for him on his eighteenth birthday, and he had enjoyed it well enough. In Iraq, he and Vaclav had smoked hashish and Janek became so aroused that he’d agreed to a night with the whores.

    He knows that tonight when they release their vows of celibacy, it will be fine with Petra. It will be loving and tender. She might conceive a child. He will meet her passion and she will not be disappointed, but oh, how he will think of the waiter! He closes his eyes for a moment and feels a whirling rush.

    Vaclav picks up the magazine. Poor thing, he says. Janek remembers their solemn revelry that night, clinking glasses, celebrating the possibilities that come with being alive and vowing to live truly and fiercely, without regrets.

    No regrets, my brother, Vaclav whispers now, his Aegean eyes red-rimmed and rheumy.

    An image of Janek’s parents’ home, their grand piano cluttered with photos in silver and gilt frames. Grand uncles and aunts and cousins, nieces, nephews, children and grandchildren, brides, grooms, anniversary parties and christenings, the memorabilia of family staring back from the frames with cheery resilience.

    Ah, Vaclav, he says.

    Later the priest will ask him if he will take this woman to be his wife, to have and to hold, to love and to cherish, until death does them part.

    His father, silver-haired and pink with pleasure, sartorially elegant in his dove gray morning coat and sterling cravat, will blink the moisture from his eyes and squeeze his mother’s kid-gloved hand. His sisters will weep into white linen hankies trimmed with Renaissance Belgium lace, leaning on their husbands. Petra, as luminous as the Madonna, already will have pledged her life to him. Above them, a pewter Christ, limp and bleeding on a rosewood crucifix, will lord over all.

    I do, he will say.





Alicia Gifford divides her time between the Los Angeles area and Mammoth Lakes. Her stories have appeared in places that include Alaska Quarterly Review, Narrative Magazine, Confrontation, and Best American Erotica. She is Fiction Editor for the online literary journal Night Train, and is currently working on a novel-in-stories. Catch her rare and meaningless blog posts at aliciasblahblahblah.blogspot.com.









Back to Freight Stories No. 5

 


Alicia Gifford

Wreckers