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Fiction

The Newcomer

by Kevin Moffett

In an airplane flying west across a wine-dark sea, Spiros travels to his new country. He is an inexperienced traveler and for now the gods look kindly upon him, blowing a gentle tailwind and seeing to it that he is seated next to one of the frank and wistful women he knows thrive where he is heading. She swallows a pill early in the flight, docks the knee of her long leg against his, and falls deeply asleep smiling. When the plane lands with a bounce in America she wakes up and smacks her lips. She has very satisfactory lips.

Spiros enrolls in the Institute for Advanced American Furtherance, a two-year academy advertised on the sides of buses in his old country. But he hasn’t come to study; he is here to find women, the kind who respond to overtures only if properly set, in chartered villas and on the backs of motorcycles. At the Institute he spots one sunning herself on grass the custodians spray-paint the color of welcome mats, and another on a bench loosening a grapefruit from its skin with fatigued determination. Spiros is surprised by the variety: in his old country there was less variety. Though why don’t these women associate with anyone? Why is their membership so scattered? He doesn’t know. Maybe they are lonely.

Two weeks later he sits in the cafeteria of the Institute and watches bored women pass his table without a glance. There is nothing, he decides, as insistent as the nonglance of a bored woman. Today is Club Recruitment Expo Day and he tries to solicit their interest for Uh-oh, the national pastime of his old country. In front of him is a signup list and five-page explanation of the methods and protocol of international Uh-oh. On either side are other club representatives, to his left a man from the Pomeranian Re-enactors and to his right a young woman from a group called People for the Ethical Treatment of Me. For international Uh-oh, a minimum of two-hundred-and-two participants are needed, half of them women. Currently on his signup list are only two signatures, his own and that of a bald Turk from Spiros’s Confronting Intermediate English class named Nuri Balicki. The young woman to his right chews her nails. Though she is not terribly pretty, neither frank-looking nor wistful, and a little undersized, she would make a perfect flank-side thunderer for Uh-oh, that is, one responsible for all the thundering done on the flank-side.

Spiros tells her this. She says, pulling the tip of her forefinger out of her mouth, “Who?”

“Uh-oh,” he says. “The sport of besiege and capture between opposing sexes, and national pastime of my country, my old country. What number of signatures are on your list?”

“Four. Yours?”

“Two. I will tell you something. If you participate in Uh-oh club, I will in turn participate in this people for ethics group.”

“PET ME.”

“I shall.”

“No, that’s the name of my organization.”

“Even so.”

The fellow from the Pomeranian Re-enactors says, “Allow me to ratify this exchange with my presence and approval.”

“What do the Pomeranian Re-enactors do?” asks the young woman.

“Besides reconstruct the sacred tours of Count Mieczislaw and Ladislaus II across wind-raked Pomerania, raising money for victims of domestic abuse along the way? Camp outdoors in the ancient mode. Venge, avenge. Tame steeds. Do either of you own a steed?”

Both shake their heads, one vigorously, the other not-so.

“We shall have to find you some,” says the Pomeranian Re-enactor.

When word of the exchange spreads through the cafeteria, representatives from the other clubs begin to approach one another with their signup sheets. Spiros makes sure everyone reads the many methods and protocol before they join Uh-oh. While they do, he signs up for the Gal Pals, Worrying About the News, Seeing-Eye Dog Liberation Society, Let’s Rap!, People Oppressed By People Oppressed By People, Overeaters Anonymous, and several others he doesn’t notice the names of. Many of the other club representatives say they are confounded by Uh-oh. The other club representatives have questions.

“What’s the object of this game?” one asks.

“The object?” says Spiros. “What is the object of love? What is the object of stars locked in the sky? Of desire? Of constant crushing desire? Of really unmanning desire?”

“Can I bring my dog?” someone asks. “My dog helps me interact, you see, with people.”

“Oppressor!” says the representative for the Seeing-Eye Dog Liberation Society.

“Oppressor!” says the representative for People Oppressed By People Oppressed By People.

“He’s strictly a leisure dog,” the dog owner assures everyone.

“Uh-oh obtains its signification on the playing rink,” Spiros says. “Then you will understand. But we still require about thirty women more.”

The other club representatives watch this newcomer consider the problem of the needed players. Some of the club representatives, too, were once newcomers. They recognize the coiled intensity of purpose, the hint of cartoon zealotry in him, and recall the day theirs burned off. A few of them note the wand-shaped scar just above his jawline.

“I shall find a way,” he says.

After the others leave, Spiros stays in the cafeteria and works in his Confronting Intermediate English textbook. Week three’s exercise is Joseph Anderson Admires the Seasons: Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall, with photographs and short narratives for each season. For Joseph Anderson, summer is a period of relaxation. Summer provides many hours of fun in the sun. Joseph Anderson is a radiant force in Bermuda shorts, an unbearably handsome man with that weary Western squint shielding the tangle of American nothingness behind his eyes. Spiros hates him and wonders what high-ranking government official this man must have wronged to find himself adorning the pages of a language textbook. In the winter, Joseph Anderson enjoys many excellent activities. He skates on frozen lakes, skis in the snow, and sits in front of a hot fire.

He writes, in his old language, The wife of a high-ranking official should never outlive the delicateness of her desire, trying to construct some sort of truth about wives.

He closes the textbook and sidearms it across the table. Yes, it will be necessary to round up some more women for Uh-oh. Their throbbing shoulder blades and painted toenails . . . nothing, nothing could be finer in the just-before-evening than a woman with painted toenails, hidden at the bottom of a pair of silk stockings like rubies in a satchel. Revelations-a word Spiros just learned-ten tiny revelations. Women are the only objects worthy of contained admiration, because they are never solved by it. Indeed, Spiros has begun to suspect that his admiration only complicates things. He desires them, but what do they desire? Him? Wealth? To further their personalities through idle chitchat? It’s true, he knows very little about them. They have warped in these new surroundings, which more and more seem to him like a dream he will awake from back home in his old country, well-rested, nostalgic, deluded. Like the old fisherman sitting over midday coffee at a cafe, whose boat and nets have been repossessed by the state bank. The fisherman has nothing now: his wife has left him. When she sees him at the cafe she spits in his direction and calls him sourtani, seat-cushion. Day after day the fisherman plots schemes for buying back his boat, writing to friends and relatives to help him with some money for the creditors. He has tried to contact important men at the bank who don’t return his calls and loaning agencies who do, telling him he has too unseemly a history. Once, the fisherman told Spiros that he didn’t even like to fish or to sail! “So why do you work to get back your boat?” Spiros asked him. “My wife,” the fisherman said. “She has the most astonishing talent . . .”

Meaning, exactly, Spiros thinks, what?

In the cafeteria, he overhears torn pieces of conversation, mostly students talking on cell phones explaining that they are talking on cell phones. He gathers his books and stands up to leave. At the table behind him, a student is coveting another’s necklace aloud. He says, I love gold link. I am hardcore into gold link. Not interesting! Everyone in the cafeteria, including Spiros, makes his hostile agreement with inactivity. A cell phone plays Yankee Doodle Dandy. One of the cashiers drops his head and sneezes loudly into his armpit. “Will someone turn off your phone,” a woman says. “Somebody please, turn off your phone.” Then, realizing it was her own, she reaches into her purse to answer it.

Ekaterina left her old country nearly two years ago to come to the Institute. In Kiev, the airport gate was crowded with soldiers and expectant travelers. The airport, large, disused, smelled of wet wool and oil. Leisure travel was a recent development. For Ekaterina, who had never flown in an airplane or been to Kiev before, every part of her passage revealed something unfamiliar. Rivers and hills dissolved to a white smear on the ascent, as the plane breached a dome of nacreous clouds. Some of the other passengers, unimpressed, had closed their window shades! Each time she transferred planes, she picked up souvenirs at the airport. In Zurich, she bought a chocolate dog; in London, postcards depicting wooly-headed Parliament guards and double-decker buses. Once her plane landed in America, the candy was gone and the postcards written. A man from the Institute met her at the airport. He wore goggle-like glasses and a tattered leather jacket. Waiting for her luggage on the carousel, he kept pointing to bags, saying, “Sat it? Sat it?”

They pulled out of the airport in a white van.

“What do you plan on studying?” he asked once they were on the interstate.

She shook her head, feigning incomprehension.

“Take up? Study? Do you speak English?”

“Um, no?” she said.

He dismissed this by turning on the radio, flipping through the stations, and then turning it off again. He had the yellowish waxy hint of a beard, hair that looked pressed beneath lucid skin. “Can you say, tonight I will need to be fully touched?” he asked. “Or how about, my lap is moist?”

“Touch yourself,” she said.

They drove into town. The man from the Institute tuned the radio to a pop music station and the two of them listened to a boy canting over a synthesizer. He looked at Ekaterina and snorted concisely, a laugh maybe. Once inside her new apartment, she sat on the carpet of the dim living room, her luggage still packed next to the front door, and waited for the landlord to turn on the power. There was a couch, end tables, a TV, a wicker chair, framed scenery prints. A dog howled from what sounded like inside her refrigerator. She felt lonesome. She began adding up everything she had witnessed so far that was new, a woman in the London airport with cheetah-print-dyed hair, an obese toddler leashed to its mother, a billboard advertising a suicide hotline, a field of mangled yellow school buses under oaks hung with moss like the beards of saints . . .

Maybe ten minutes, maybe two hours later the TV turned on. Ekaterina opened her eyes to a woman talking to her toilet, which moved its lid and seat like a mouth. It told her that it was a problem toilet, and it needed a problem-toilet disinfectant. Ekaterina turned off the TV and unpacked her bags.

Spiros walks around the Institute’s campus, composed of a half-dozen identical coquina-shell buildings, each with a capital letter in its upper right corner and smoked black windows like hearses. The buildings give no hint of their age or of being mapped out and actually constructed. It is a place that seems to have simply occurred one day.

Between buildings, Spiros notices a yellow-painted gazebo. As he moves closer, he notices that it is filled entirely with young women he has never seen before. One, six, ten, twenty women at least, all holders of the same careless beauty. So this is where they congregate, this is the cathedral that celebrates frankness, carelessness. So many eyes and lips, how to depict them all? Each woman smokes a cigarette. Many wear sheer dresses with complex straps criss-crossing shoulder blades which, as the women bring the cigarettes to and from their lips, roll beneath sleek skin and look to Spiros like captive wings trying to break free. He feels a reverence for these tainted angels-yes, he will require them for his Uh-oh club, but he cannot approach them yet. For now it must be sufficient to stay and witness them, and for them to blink and suspire, unaware of his urges. He thinks: Each woman, a controversy of abundance! We shall do more than watch one another! He thinks: Soon I will wear the marks of each gazebo angel’s needs!

It might be fruitful to pause and single out one of the gazebo women. How about Ekaterina, currently enrolled in the Institute’s Practical Tactics program? She has a frail, vitamin-deficient look to her, with lazy deep-set blue eyes glowering downward like a cross but mostly innocent child. Much has changed in the two years since her passage. She has become steadily uninterested in the Institute and the prospect of furtherance or advanced furtherance. She is no longer homesick or lonely. She has only desire, slow, general, misplaced. She loves action movies and pop music. A boy in her old country once told her she would make an exceptional archery target. The prospect of a fruitless life? This worries Ekaterina-indeed it worries most of the women at the smoking gazebo-not at all.

But Ekaterina is unlike the rest of the gazebo women. They are citizens and she just a temporary visitor. Though she suspects they see her as an imposter and loathe her, assailing her when she isn’t around, she is wrong. Perception has never been required of them. Instead, they are content to be perceived, taken in by their classmates as brief quivers of perfection strolling to and from class, ranging but always returning to the yellow smoking gazebo. All, like Ekaterina, have flaws but none of them are particularly important. Only Ekaterina supposes that what’s most palpable in their careless beauty is not beauty but carelessness. Applause of cigarette-box packing, ripping of plastic film and paper, snip snip of lighters, exhalation. More pomp than circumstance, but such appealing, such well-executed pomp. Let it be perceived.

“My esteemed homey,” Nuri Balicki says at the Let’s Rap! meeting. Spiros, who has come late, standing by the doors and waiting for his eyes to adjust to the room’s dimness, failed to notice him there in the back row. “It is me, Nuri Balicki. Do you remember?”

“Confronting Intermediate English,” Spiros says.

“Good, good. We are supposed to be pairing together now to collaborate on a rap hymn. I would very much like for you to be my co-partner.”

Spiros agrees.

He sits down next to Nuri Balicki and together they compose a rap hymn on the subject of women. Nuri Balicki comes up with the chorus:

Me and you, girl, we can unh on a camelback, unh unh . . . unh. Huh? You say to me. Talkin’ like a camel-hack, huh huh . . . huh?

He copies the chorus onto a sheet of paper. When the Turk recites the unh unh . . . unh and the huh huh . . . huh his wide chest shakes affably. His features are compressed, complex, and his skull has been shaved to the skin years ago at the on set of pattern baldness. Looking at the Turk’s bare head, Spiros is reminded of that coarse American proverb: I had to destroy the village to save it. Many of the other club representatives from the Recruitment Expo are here at the meeting of Let’s Rap! including the PET ME woman, the Pomeranian Re-enactor, the Dog Liberator-but not a single gazebo angel. They hide like oracles, acquiring significance in their refusal to participate. Right now they are probably nakedly sunning themselves behind a high wall or posing for an admirer’s tattoo; or overseeing a duel between frustrated suitors; flourishing a scarf over the twin dueling pistols, shoulders flushed with ritual, the worm of longing shuddering through . . .

(Actually Ekaterina is currently sitting in a bathrobe in her living room, drinking wine and watching an action movie on television. The wife of the president has been abducted by a motorcycle group, and there are many high-speed chases. The secretary of state’s limousine is driven off a cliff. The president says, “They may have come in peace-they’ll leave in pieces!” and Ekaterina is able to apprehend the pun. She writes down new English words from the movie: way-layed, scrou-up, mahshetty. The wine is sweet, cheap, and she is extraordinarily comfortable, soothed by the slow click of the overhead ceiling fan. She begins to lose track where the commercials end and the movie begins. A bomb unit is dispatched, more problem toilets are cleaned. One of the motorcyclists is captured, a man in a cape wants you to know about Furniture Kingdom, and a third paid too much for his fiance’s diamond-studded tennis bracelet. Confounding, but not at all disagreeable.)

Spiros turns to Nuri Balicki. “Do you know the women of the gazebo?” he asks. “Why are they none of them in extracurricular activities?”

“Oh yes-yes, the American orospu. These women are involved in thoroughly nothing but themselves. And their selves are nothing. So they are involved in nothing.”

“Truly? But I cannot agree with you. Maybe they never feel welcome here. Maybe their scrawling country makes them uneasy. I plan to welcome them to my Uh-oh club. I must figure out a way for them to happily come and make themselves available.”

“Maybe you should. Maybe you’re right,” Nuri Balicki says, clearly unconvinced. Then, adopting a more solicitous expression: “What is your opinion of your new country?”

“A chaos of hungry ghosts. Among beautiful women. It is what I always visioned.”

“Oh, my homey, I think you are far too hasty,” Nuri Balicki says. “In time you will reach a coherence in this country, nearly everyone does. And then what? You will be angry that you ever resisted. No?”

“The only thing I will compile is American women. Do you think I traveled across the sea for a hamburger education?”

“Yes-yes. No. I think we must be from different view points. Myself, I love everything of this country except the women. The women here are like cold . . . what’s the English? ...sculptures.”

“You generalize.”

“It is the Ottoman in me. I understand only on large scale.”

“What are women in Turkey like?”

“Much the same, I am afraid. Nonetheless I am a fan of them. They have endeared themselves because of their familiarness. What it seems you are aspiring for in women is the opposite, the unfamiliarness. Is this a word? Oddity? Exotica? Yes-yes, you are an exemplary example of your country, an explorer, eager to celebrate newness and beautifulness,and wash out the low impulses. I should talk less to you and listen more. Come now, it is our time to rap.”

The two of them stand up. The Turk takes out a handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his forehead, above which runs a silhouette of less tanned skin like the shoreline of a dead sea. I had to destroy it to save it. Since his arrival in America, Spiros’s sense of smell has been noticeably vitalized, and currently it picks up someone’s sweet and intimate scent, a sort of personal syrup. A woman in the front of the room shouts, Let’s rap! and Spiros begins to feel sick. There are times when he is exhilarated by the generosity of suggestion in his new country, the simple democracy of it, and times when it nestles its way into his chest and expires there. The Turk begins:

Hey, little angel, let me tell you what I think. The two of us are in harmony, twin soldiers, when it comes to beholding each other’s juicy persons in the Uh-oh rink.

How to recruit them?

For us to disentangle the route by which Spiros arrives at his decision of how, exactly, to induce the gazebo women to participate in the inaugural meeting of Uh-oh, to mark his doubt, perplexity, and relief, the guilelessness with which he finally arrives at a method-a very traditional one, by the way, though Spiros doesn’t realize this, because in all his years practicing the sly diplomacy of direct romantic pursuit he has never employed it-would be tedious. He decides to be straightforward with them.

We’ll join them mid-conference, with Spiros standing outside the gazebo looking in with his right hand shielded over his eyes, thumb on temple, as if in prolonged salute to the gazebo angels.

“… but I told him it is thought by me,” he concludes, “that this is not the case.”

He was referring to the earlier conversation with the Turk, which he has tried to reenact for the women. The women have been listening, he can tell from the way they have allowed their cigarettes to smolder between their fingers. “Where are you from?” one of them asks.

Spiros says, “Did you ever read about the wine-dark sea?”

Cigarettes still smoldering, no response from the women.

“Well, this is my old country.”

This close, he can better distinguish each of them. The one who asked where are you from wears a black dress with an egg-shaped aperture at the midriff exposing a tan, very satisfactory midriff. She is stern but curious, unconstrained, navigable.

“You say we conduct the initiatory charge, but what does the winner get? What is the object of this Uh-oh?”

“The object?” says Spiros. “What is the object of love? What is the object of desire? Of constant crushing desire? Of really unmanning desire?”

“Of the thirst that has no new name?” one says.

“Of false pledges to errant men?” another says.

“Of the loneliness mistakes make?”

Desirous, desirous, desirous. “Beautiful! You see!” he says. “You surely must have somewhere played Uh-oh before.”

“Of phone conversations missing things?” (This is said by Ekaterina.)

“Please, that’s enough,” the one with the very satisfactory midriff says.

“Let us talk this over and we’ll let you know.”

“Of course, of course. I leave you with a description of protocols, and list of possible uniforms and strategies and tell you we play a fortnight from Wednesday at four o’clock.”

Spiros walks away from the gazebo, hearing the lazy suspiration, the affirmative whispers of the angels. He has been hallowed in their cigarette fumes. As he passes a group of Carpentry students, he can smell the dowdy smoke that was pulled by the angels’ lips, past teeth, tongues, tonsils, tracheas, bronchia, and held, caressing their pleura and alveoli, briefly, before it was released, all over his clothes and skin. An intimate exchange between the women and him, far more pleasing in memory than in act, like most intimate exchanges. A petting zoo of urges! Together they shall soon yoke! An intimate exchange, far more pleasing in anticipation than in memory, like most intimate exchanges.

Often Ekaterina wonders when she will begin feeling homesick. She now loves a third thing, besides action movies and pop music—Boone’s Farm wine, which she buys at Qwik Stop, near her apartment. Always there seem to be the same twelve people lined up in the car parts aisle waiting to trade in to the cashier pink-and-white lotto forms. They mark the forms with stubby pencils, using fashion magazines and cereal boxes for leverage, and look suspicious to her, not themselves guilty, but suspicious of everyone else in line. She tries to ignore their stares and enjoy the popular sounds of Boyzterious playing on her headphones. Boyzterious, the conjunction of boyz and mysterious, is her favorite music group. They are on a mission, according to their liner notes, to lighten the vicissitudes of existence with funky beats and jams. Most important to know, they are four boyz who are, each one of them, mysterious. For instance, they are not boyz at all, but forty-year-old men with high-school-age children and prostate anxiety. One of the boyz likes to wear humorous caps. Another has a grayish braided goatee he wants to sing you a song about and, what’s more, which you want to hear a song about, and all of it is extremely mysterious.

The Qwik Stop cashier says, “Sup,” nods, and winks his right eye all in a single ostentatious movement, which Ekaterina practices on the walk home.

Once a week, she talks to her family on the telephone, hearing the old sounds in the background as her younger sister goes on about a boyfriend: kitchen clatter, voices clamoring over politics on the radio, her dog barking. “Do you not think he sounds appealing?” her younger sister asks. “Tell me, does Tiger Woods live near you?” She hands the phone to their mother. “How is our modern Ukrainian woman of the United States?” she asks. She is washing dishes; Ekaterina recognizes the caustic fizzing sound of the sanitation tablets, which her mother still uses even though they’ve had hot water for nearly a decade. When Ekaterina tells her she has signed up for the Institute’s Uh-oh club, her mother says, “A veritable American!,” then asks, “Uh-oh is game show?” She hands the phone to Ekaterina’s father. “When will you be finished with your schooling and return home to us?” he asks.

Off the phone, she makes dinner for herself, a chipped beef boil-in-a-bag served on toast, and a handful of miniature carrots.

She watches a repeat of the movie about the kidnapped president’s wife. It makes less sense to her the second time. During a commercial, a talking dog wants her to be sure to buy special Christmas Dog Chow this holiday season. He sits on a ottoman, gesturing frantically with his front paws, and his mouth moves. There is something calming to Ekaterina about the satisfied smile of a dog, his visible optimism and perfectly articulated appetite, pointing out that he needs lutein as part of a balanced diet and he needs bigger Christmas taste. Seeing him, she, too, feels satisfied, though she has no reason to be, except maybe the wine. This is not her home, why isn’t she homesick? She is alone, why isn’t she lonely? The satisfaction, the undue optimism: she wants to stay in her new country forever or, failing that, until Boyzterious releases several more recordings. Ekaterina’s unease is slight and seldom: once a week, after she has talked to her family on the telephone.

In the morning, the only thing troubling her is the certainty that nothing is troubling her.

The weather is partly-sunny and Spiros walks to class from his apartment, a journey which leaves him feeling resigned and mildly glad, until he catches sight of the industrial-beige buildings of the Institute, the smoked windows. As he approaches them, they don’t slowly come into view like a vista-they seem to grow. A custodian in a golf cart passes by, tweezing with giant metal tongs Diet Sprite cans and fast-food wrappers off the ground and deftly tossing them into the back of the cart. In the shadow between two buildings, two boys slouched over bongos bang arhythmically to the delight of a few sandy-haired girls who laugh and scribble graffiti into the benches they are sitting on. The girls look florid, drugged, capsized.

Today the yellow smoking gazebo is empty of angels, a sign interpretable by Spiros as either encouraging or discouraging. On one hand, they could be preparing their uniforms for today’s match, fashioning the necessary body trinkets as outlined by the protocols of international Uh-oh; or convening to talk strategy for their initiatory, a movement most important, push. Another possibility is that they are embarrassed to cross paths with him again, and have decided to permanently sequester themselves in order to maintain their honor. Spiros moves past the gazebo, smelling the decocted smoke and flora smell to which he has come to connect with the women. He hadn’t considered the prospect of them not showing up and now that he does, he feels the idea unfold then relax into his memory, assuming a sluggish inevitability. Minus the angels, the gazebo looks like a cheap lawn oddity. Spiros feels a pain in his stomach, as the smell of lunch wafts down from the cafeteria. Dry leaves ride along the red-ant mounds that skirt the gazebo, over tidy rows of stabbed cigarette butts that look like ant stovepipes or ant memorials.

Spiros has been in America for five weeks. He has learned that a quality, preowned sofa is
actually a used sofa; that all three words in Kash N’ Karry, the supermarket he uses, are misspelled; and that the women here, though far more assorted and plentiful, resist compilation as quietly yet resolutely as they did in his old country. The days waiting for the first Uh-oh match, with the exception of the brief exchange with the gazebo angels, have been filled with frustration and doubt. The former is familiar; the latter, not too.

“Would you like I bring you to dinner?”

No, they say.

“Are you as full of bubbling longing as the cinema actress you resemble?”

No, they say.

“Do the gods know your eyes are handsome stars?”

No. Drawing out the vowel, an accidentally sensual ohhhhhh.

Their blunt refusals both speak directly to him and beyond him. They are intimate and impersonal, authentic and generic, like the commercials on television telling him to buy an Aerobicizer, eat more pork loin, reinvent himself in Virginia Beach; at the same time saying: what you have is unsatisfactory and what you long for is probably too large. The symbolic castle of want is surrounded by a symbolic moat stocked with chomping symbolic alligators…

A final view of Ekaterina:

At the bathroom mirror, studying her own lazy eyes lazily. They are her most notable feature, meant to view and to be viewed simultaneously. Their hazel-splashed irises, brilliant under the bald fluorescent tubelight, watch her fingers slide pins into her hair. Her hands are always reaching toward hair, headphones, cigarettes, remote control, telephone.Everything is so accommodating, pleasing, easy, worthwhile, brief.

She steps back from the mirror, admires herself in full armor. Her eyes make a little agreeable gesture.

How fair! she says. How fresh! she says.

And is convinced, briefly.

Out of the one-hundred-and-one male participants who signed up for Uh-oh, only Spiros and Nuri Balicki make it to the Institute’s field for the inaugural meeting, and only Spiros wears the prescribed armor. A gift from his father, black and heavy as a cast-iron skillet, it accepts all of the late afternoon sun’s heat, causing him to sweat liberally from multiple ports. The ground is covered with a mousy-smelling mist. The Turk stares down at it in his denim torn shorts and T-shirt depicting a beer slogan.

“To begin, we use sheep’s knuckle to see who leads the initiatory push,” Spiros says. “But due to a large show of atheism by our fellows, you and I will alone lead.”

“But the men, the women, none has showed up.” The Turk beckons halfheartedly to the open field.

“Hey, why don’t we simply call off and go to a local cafe and converse.”

“We are the men’s team,” Spiros says. “The women’s team is plotting to overtake us. We must instead overtake them, you see. It is matter of governance, of tradition, of desire, of fierce really unmanning desire ...”

He had planned a rousing speech for the gathered horde. Instead, he points to the kudzu-covered bluff at the edge of the field. “We will begin there.”

“This is foolish. I feel sorry for us.”

“Uh-oh is a game of initiatory and retaliatory pushes. It perfectly mimics, and often leads to, the sex act.”

“Right now my ancestors are weeping in their ziggurats,” the Turk says.

The Turk and Spiros walk toward the bluff, beads of sweat forming atop the dead sea of the Turk’s skull. Spiros’s armor makes a gritty, not a clanging sound, as he always expects it to. Once, his father told him the armor dated back to a time when Uh-oh was waged in their country as a battle between opposing religions, and was known as The Crusades. In the past century, pursuit of god, his father said, had given way to pursuit of available women by men, available men by women, with variation, and the world was more habitable because of it. This was one of the old man’s considerable lies, Spiros now realizes. An impulsive and talented liar, he was confusing the world around him, he said, to make it more interesting.

Noticing Spiros’s wistful expression, the Turk asks, “Are you still missing your old country?”

“I am everyday missing less and less. Now only I am missing when I missed it before, do you see?”

“Yes, my esteemed homey, I do exactly see. Sometimes it is the opposite situation with me. I miss what I yet have not lost. You, for instance. I am missing you already. And I am missing the you that misses when he used to miss. I miss that soon you will not miss.”

Just then, all at once at the tip of the bluff, the jagged outline of the gazebo angels appears to the two men. Motionless in their home-made armor, rising from the kudzu densely and lushly like overgrowth, the angels shine and loom, shine and loom. The ground-mist evaporates beneath Spiros’s shoes. Some of the women have wrapped their top halves in aluminum foil, giving the apt illusion of the crystalline cap of a wave soon to break. Their helmets are festooned with gilded smoking charms, specially made holders for their burning cigarettes. Some hold coiled ropes, lengths of wood, croquet implements, all banned. One of them improvises a battle moan. The Turk responds with a hyperventilated expletive. Spiros’s notice convenes on the forward-most angel, looming in painted bronze, Ekaterina. Her appearance seems uncharacteristic, gate-opening. She is tall. There is a fellowship in her sunken eyes, a surfeit of misunderstanding like his own, as she raises her arm and gives the command, the loveliest phrase in her American vocabulary, “Forward!”

“What do you say to this?” Spiros asks the Turk.

“Uh-oh,” Nuri Balicki says.

A flash of breasts in thin foil, very satisfactory midriffs painted like bright wartime pennants, tanlines revealed, Ekaterina still ahead of the lush tumble of inhibitions down, down the bluff. Like a press of errant bees! Like a press of errant bees!

“Exactly,” Spiros says.



Kevin Moffett was born and raised in Daytona Beach, Florida. His stories have received the Nelson Algren Award and the Pushcart Prize, and have appeared in McSweeney’s, Tin House, StoryQuarterly, the Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere. “Tattooizm,” originally published in Tin House, is forthcoming in The Best American Short Stories 2006. His first collection of stories, Permanent Visitors, won the Iowa Short Fiction Award, judged by George Saunders, and will be published in October. He lives with his wife and young son in Gettysburg, Pa., where he will spend 2006-2007 as the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College. Contact Kevin at .

Permanent Visitors by Kevin Moffett