The Last Project

The person on the train kept saying, “I believe,” over and over and over. The train, a Railjet Express 165, left Vienna for Innsbruck punctually at 9:30 on this first Sunday of April and there was only one other person in the third compartment behind the dining car, an elderly lady in a green tweed suit, her purse and a manila envelope the only pieces of luggage either one of them had. The two didn’t know each other and never spoke. As the train eased into Linz central station, the old lady stood up, picked up her purse, looked at her travel companion, and said “Good luck”. Then she was gone and all that was left in the compartment was silence, a pounding heart, an unwavering belief against all odds, and a manila envelope.

* * *

Jašar reached for the knob on his car stereo and soon the melancholic gypsy sounds filled the automobile. Of course, his name wasn’t Jašar anymore, for Jašar was killed by a landmine just outside of Sarajevo 14 years ago. There was nothing in his new life tying him to the person he was before, not a name, not his documents, not a single possession, not anybody he knew back then, save for one man. He was various people, right now a German entrepreneur on a business trip to Austria, yet in none of his many lives was there room for nostalgia. It was in the rare moments like this one, when nearing the end of one of his projects, that he would allow himself a little treat and would dive into the sounds of his childhood.

The man Jašar was waiting for was still in the house and if everything was as expected, it would be another few hours before he came out, making it likely that the deal would be closed tonight. Jašar spent months preparing for this meeting, both in Vienna and here, in the outskirts of Klagenfurt. He met the politician just once, at the party thrown by the British Embassy in Vienna to celebrate the Queen’s birthday, but he has never been far away from him since. He knew where he lived, his favorite restaurants and meals, which car he drove, and when he drove it by himself, what time he woke up, where his lover lived, what roads he took for every of his trips. He was visiting his lover right now, a young man who sang in a church choir, volunteered in the local fire brigade and lived in a small house with thickly nested red geraniums hanging over the dark oak balcony slabs, the one he inherited from his grandmother. In stark contrast to the modest abode stood the black government issued Volkswagen Phaeton parked in front of it, with its 12-cylinder and 6-liter motor announcing not only its own power wherever it went, but also of the man in it, the man who many believed would be the next Austrian Chancellor.

A few decades, or perhaps even a few years ago, the fact that a prominent political figure had a same-sex lover would have been enough to ruin their chances of a rise to power. But this was 2008 and Austria didn’t care anymore. Well, Austria didn’t know, either, but Sir Nigel contracted Jašar to deal with this, which meant that after careful calculations, communications and considerations, the conclusion they all came to was that Austria wouldn’t care, or at least wouldn’t care enough. They wanted this dealt with discreetly and permanently. Who exactly they all were, Jašar didn’t know and he didn’t care. He knew Sir Nigel Douglas, and more importantly Sir Nigel knew him, the only person to do so.

They met during the war in Bosnia, the one that cost Jašar his family and his innocence, during the two years that followed directly the two he had spent studying at MIT, making the contrast of the never-ending bloodshed that he immersed into even more unfathomable to him. He came back too late, too late to even see his sisters one more time, much less save them, and he never forgave himself, nor the world. It made no difference that his family never wanted him to come back, that they wanted him to stay in the promised land and make a name for himself, for them all, to be the one who became something. He came back and immediately reverted to being nothing instead, a lost soul in a lost world, his grasp on life and his boundaries disappearing as fast as the last people he knew. At first, he found some refuge and some relief in aimless killing, justifying every time he gave into his rage as just another righteous revenge. But the more it went on, the emptier he felt, and soon he realized he was as dead inside as any of the men he had killed and forgotten. He decided it was enough and that what he needed was money, enough money to get away from it all. Everything was for sale back then, firearms, ammunition, cigarettes, alcohol, women. Jašar entered the market from another side and created a niche in which he translated for the peacekeeping forces, pimped their radio stations, hacked into their cryptography units and then sold them better ones he made himself. He also settled family revenges against wrongdoing parties, no matter the constellation, as long as the money was right. He accepted any currency, but it had to be fiscal; flags, Gods and Great Leaders counted nothing to him, no matter what flag, God or Great Leader of the day would greatly appreciate his allegiances.

His set of skills and his ideological flexibility soon caught the eye of Sir Nigel, who was embedded with the British forces and was always on the lookout for recruitable talent. What exactly Sir Nigel’s role was, Jašar never knew, but he soon came to realize that he was a man of considerable influence and autonomy, the one who could provide him not only with the money to start a new life, but with a new life itself.

Jašar was pronounced dead on a cold December morning, and on the same day a young man flew to Germany, carrying with himself a mint British passport, an invitation for a research fellowship at the Munich Technical University, and a brand-new Nokia 2146 that would only ring when Sir Nigel needed him.

The politician closed the door behind him and walked towards his Phaeton. His steps through the cold October night were brisk, and Jašar wondered whether the man would have preferred to know it was a goodbye, rather than a see you later. Was it better to know when you are seeing a loved one for the last time? Or was he doing him a favor, sparing him of looking into the eyes full of despair, without anything to do or say that would change anything?

Until recently, Jašar never had to make that choice himself, for there was nobody to say goodbye to in the first place. There had been women briefly passing through his life, flight attendants and waitresses, but he mostly stuck to escorts, high end escorts who knew better than to ask, and whom he paid generously not for sex, but for sparing him from clumsy compliments and vague hints of next dates afterwards. Women who came loudly and left quietly, engaging him in perfectly orchestrated choreographies of pretense, in carnal transactions from which they wanted just as little real intimacy as he did. He welcomed the relief that came to him every time the door would close, when he could stop pretending he cares and go back to pretending he’s alive.

And then he met her, during the Embassy party, and against all reason he kept seeing her. They would spend evenings at her place, an 18th century flat with high ceilings and even higher rent, drinking red wine, solving crossword puzzles and reading stories she would bring home from work. Josephine worked as a cultural attaché in the British Embassy and screened the works sent for a literary contest organized by the Crown before sending the worthy ones to London. To Jašar they were all great. He liked reading, even writing, but the stories gave them more, much more, they gave them both a safe place to be and imagine, a place in which they could be bank robbers on a wild car chase for a day, or young parents leaving their baby with a babysitter for the first time, or disgruntled post office employees plotting against their mean boss, anything but Jašar and Josephine of here and now. The stories were surrogates for their own, sparing them from thinking about, not to mention planning, anything that could be called future. Josephine never pushed him, and he never pushed her, and the more room they left to each other, more they started to feel at ease to fill it with something real. He couldn’t talk about his past, nor his real line of work, but he could talk, and he wanted to, not carefully planned and rehearsed cover stories, but just about things. His thoughts, his opinions, even some of his feelings.

He knew it was all nonsensical though, that every step they made was a step that will have to be retraced and then deleted. He would soon not only live somewhere else, but also be someone else, a journey he could only make alone. The finality of their own story was hovering over them as they escaped into one essay after another. She knew it would end soon, he knew why, and the only thing left for him to decide was how to end it.

He probably should have made a clean cut and disappeared without saying that last farewell. But we hurt most when we love, and Jašar thought she deserved it, deserved to know when there would be no more. In a dimly lit hallway he stopped before grabbing the door handle and hugged her from behind, their bodies reflecting in the gold-leafed mirror next to the door he would exit for the last time. They stood there for a while, silently looking at each other, trying to engrave the moment in their memories. Then he told her to close her eyes and to believe. Just believe. And not to open them until she hears the door closing.

The Phaeton was on the move. Jašar had found a perfect place, a rocky ravine to the right of a left-hand curve, after a long straight stretch. A place where drivers must slow down to 70 km/h to safely stay within the road, a place where one might have an accident if they came in too fast. He flicked open his laptop and clicked twice. Two stop lights turned red. It was 2 AM, but he didn’t want anyone else on the road. He was long connected to the Phaeton’s rSAP communication system and through it to the hacked control center of the car. On his laptop screen he could read out all the vitals from the dashboard and track the car’s position along the road. As soon as the car entered what would literally be its final stretch, Jašar clicked on the button titled “Disable all manual input”, and from that point on the Phaeton’s steering wheel and the pedals were as useless as those of a car on a Merry-Go-Round. He reached for the joystick and pushed it hard, making the 450-horsepower rev angrily, thrusting the car forward. On Jašar’s screen the number circled in red went from 90 to 110, from 110 to 140. The man who would never become Austrian Chancellor was hurtling towards the stony precipice with close to hundred miles per hour and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. Just before the tires left the ground, Jašar moved the joystick slightly to the left and then jerked it back hard, causing the brakes to lock the wheels and sending the two-and-a-half-ton vehicle and its only passenger spinning into the abyss. The skid marks stretched for twenty meters, marking a place where flowers would later be laid to commemorate what could have only been an accident, a tragic accident that took a life of a man who rose to prominence by uniting Austrian and even European far-right scene, but who also, unfortunately, liked to drink a little too much and drive a little too fast.

* * *

Jašar slid the door to the side and stepped on the wooden veranda. The air was humid and salty, and the warm evening wind was starting to pick up, flicking sand grains into his scarred torso. He just came back from a run with his new friend Spirit, a Golden Retriever pup who was the first being he had shared a home with in a long time. It was probably Spirit who made it feel like home, and not just a house or a flat, like all of them before. This one didn’t have an expiry date, and Jašar had a feeling this was the place he would be coming back to until there would be no place to come back to.

He had a new name and a new story, not that anyone around here was keen on asking. As fate will have it, the German entrepreneur had a fatal car accident himself, only a few days after the politician died, his body so badly burned that they needed to compare dental records on file to make sure it was him. It was necessary, not only out of change of scene purposes, but also out of self-preservation ones. He had worked for Sir Nigel for years and completed numerous highly sensitive projects for him, but this was of a whole new magnitude. One just doesn’t get to eliminate one of the future heads of state and live to talk about it. They were surely looking to tie up all the loose ends, and there was no end looser than Jašar. Not for one second did he think that Sir Nigel bought into his death, but he thought that the old man was indeed fond of him and hoped that the cover would give him excuse to tone down the search. It’s been almost half a year now and from what he could gather, the efforts to find him were slowly dying down. They were still monitoring the places he lived before, and they still had the phones and the emails of the few of his closest contacts from his last life bugged, Josephine’s ones probably topping the list.

Did she think he was dead? Did she still believe? He could picture Sir Nigel calling her into his office in the OSCE wing of the Jaurèsgasse 12 Embassy building and telling her the news. He probably said something like “I’m terribly sorry my dear, I know you were quite fond of him. Bloody automobiles.” And he probably meant it, too, the old sentimental fool. Jašar missed her, but there was no way of going back. He knew she was still working in the embassy, still sifting through other people’s stories, and perhaps even still thinking about him. But he also knew he couldn’t call her or write to her, without giving his continued existence away.

He came in and slid the door shut. He poured himself a good tumbler, sipped on the whisky and kept looking through four large window panes, each one filled with the setting sun and the ocean, never-tiring ocean greeting the shore with a white foamy kiss, one rhythmic wave after another. The sun was long gone when he realized he wasn’t thinking about if anymore, but about how, that he had made a decision. There would be a last project after what has been the last project, but this time it will be on his terms, it will be his own. He would need documents, two or three passports at least. A whole load of travel arrangements. And he would need someone on the ground to do a hand-off. Karla, it will have to be Karla, good old Karla who always loved working for him and who would probably do it even for free, just to mix some excitement into her now retired, flower-growing life, but who he would pay enough for a lifetime. She had a good sense of humor, and she would surely laugh when she realizes that the part of the job is buying clothes, boring old people’s clothes she so detested.

But before anything else, he needed a story. He hadn’t written in ages, but the time came where his pen would have to be as mighty as the swords of his sorry life have ever been. He needed a good story Karla would mail for him, a story that would set this project and the rest of his life in motion. He thought of her and of their reflection in the mirror. He wanted a life, a real life, and for the first time he thought he could have one. He took another sip and cracked his fingers. And then he let them fly over the keyboard, watching how the low, clicking sounds made his screen fill up with words, words that he hoped would be the one story he really lived, a story that started like this:

“The person on the train kept saying, “I believe,” over and over and over. The train, a Railjet Express 165, left Vienna for Innsbruck punctually at 9:30 on this first Sunday of April and there was only one other person in the third compartment behind the dining car, an elderly lady in a green tweed suit, her purse and a manila envelope the only pieces of luggage either one of them had. The two didn’t know each other and never spoke. As the train eased into Linz central station, the old lady stood up, picked up her purse, looked at her travel companion, and said “Good luck”. Then she was gone and all that was left in the compartment was silence, a pounding heart, an unwavering belief against all odds and a manila envelope.”

 

The Traitor Dog

“Plav”, he said.

“What?”, I said back.

“Plav. That’s where you’re going to”

“No, no. There’s been some kind of mistake. I’m supposed to join the Sports Brigade in Pula”

“Plav”, he said tiredly, “It’s Plav, son. You are to report to the barracks on Saturday, September 1st. Here’s your travel money”

I got 420 Yugoslav Dinars. The kid in front of me got 35. The one behind me got 50. I had no idea where or what Plav was, but I was pretty sure I was fucked.

* * *

I liked dogs as a kid, but these were no dogs. They were bred from equal parts German Shepherd, Rotweiler, and centuries of uncontrolled anger. I was afraid of even the slobber coming out of their ever-foaming mouths, convinced it was so full of evil it would turn me to stone if it ended up touching me.

As it turned out, Plav was a village in the Accursed Mountains, the place where I was to spend the next 12 months protecting the Brotherhood and Unity of Yugoslav People against Albanian elements, who for some reason were determined to cross the border and harm The Greatest Socialist Country That Ever Existed. I was given a gun to deal with them once I find them. And I was to be given one of these dogs to find them in the first place.

* * *

It started snowing in October. We had to do our morning gymnastics shirtless for as long the temperature was above freezing. Once below, we were allowed to keep the sleeveless undershirt on.

“I’m feeling warm. I’m feeling the warmth spread through my body”, the Serbian kid next to me kept repeating out loud during the before-the-sunrise squats. His mother taught Yoga.

“You are stupid”, the Macedonian kid replied. He wasn’t recruited for this unit because he was a good athlete, but because he bribed recruitment officials in his village. It cost him one goat and in his mind increased his chances of getting married one day, preferably to Samantha Fox.

* * *

About three months in, it was decided that The Dog Beast would no longer eat me if given the opportunity, so I was cleared to go on the patrols with it.

Nowadays, I see the mountain chain where I lived then referred to as “Albanian Alps”. Nobody called it like that back then. It was always The Accursed Mountains, with the “accursed” part accentuated, almost to the point of spitting on the floor right after saying it. Nobody in their right mind wanted to be there. It was really, really cold, it was dark most of the time, the terrain was rocky and slippery and full of precipices, and unlike the very rare mountaineers who ventured that far, I couldn’t just turn around and go back when I felt like it.

Among other reasons, because I had The Dog Beast tied to my belt, thus somewhat increasing my chances of not falling off the cliff, while simultaneously significantly decreasing my chances of not being pulled forward all the time.

* * *

My sister must have been concerned that the military diet was not sufficient for her athlete baby brother, so she decided to fix it and send me 30 pounds of pork rinds. Actually, she decided to send me 50 pounds of pork rinds, but was then informed at the post office that no packages of over 30 pounds can be sent to Albanian border. That led to some awkward repackaging and a pretty long queue that was formed behind her, but I did get my rinds.

Stashed behind my machine gun, they quickly became the preferred currency of the outpost, kind of like Bitcoin, only more valuable, because there was a limited and a decreasing number of them.

* * *

The Dog Beast stopped first. I could barely see it, because it was dark and we were in the forested part of the route, but I felt the line tied to my belt go limp. I had no idea why it was stopping and to be honest, I was still scared to insist too much, so I stopped, too. As I was contemplating if I had enough time to pee before it decided to pull me again, I saw it curl down and cover its muzzle with the paws. It was the first time it looked like a normal dog and I was almost tempted to bend down and cuddle it.

Then it started yowling in terror.

The Dog Beast was yowling in terror. This had about the same effect on me as being woken up by my father as a 3-years-old, telling me that he had heard something and that he is afraid it is still out there in the closet. Between The Dog Beast and me there was exactly one brave soldier and it wasn’t me. I was not bred to fight and kill and if the one that was felt it needed to be scared shitless, what about me? I had no idea what it was, but it was more than I could handle.

And then I heard them.

First one, then two, then more sounds than I could tell apart, the wolves announced their presence to make it clear that in the hierarchy of badasses, they were quite a few notches higher than my Dog Beast.

* * *

What happened next is still kind of a blur to me. I’d like to think it didn’t involve crying. I’m sure it didn’t involve any rational thinking, or, God forbid, bravery. I’m pretty sure it involved a lot of screaming and firing my M-72 into the general direction of nothingness. It also involved a lot of luck, because none of the 30 shots I fired hit me or The Traitor Dog. I would have surely fired some more, but it is one thing to squeeze your shaking fingers around the trigger and quite another one to manage to change a magazine.

Be as it may, I was now alive and 30 bullets short. Unlike normal military who are given real ammunition only for shooting exercises, we, the elite and brave protectors of our borders, had ours on us all the time. The enemy never sleeps, so neither should we. Or at least not too far from the loaded gun. The problem was, you were not exactly supposed to lose your bullets, which was in the end effect what I did. I could either invent an Albanian intrusion and start a war, go chasing the wolves and actually shoot one to bring it as evidence, or tell the truth.

I was about as inclined to try to get any closer to the wolves as I was to explain what happened to the panel of officers trying to determine if I was more of an idiot or a coward.

Luckily, there was also a fourth way.

* * *

For all the complaining I did while I was there, I never failed to acknowledge that I lived in a Ritz-Carlton compared to my counterparts on the other side, protecting their Motherland against Yugoslavian elements, who for some reason were determined to cross the border and harm The Other Greatest Socialist Country That Ever Existed. To start, they had to serve a two-year term. Then, if anyone in their family had bone spurs or such and got off, they had to serve their two years, too. This led to quite a few families lining up their sons and going, “One, two, one, two, fuck you”, and thanking the sacrificed one for his service of six or eight years.

Then there was the question of equipment. They wore rubber boots in temperatures that were often twenty or thirty degrees below zero. They had similar spin-offs of Russian Kalashnikov as we did, only theirs were far too rusty to actually work. Which was my salvation. Because if you have guns that don’t work, what you have plenty of and no use for are – the bullets.

While they had the surplus of ammunition, what they lacked for was porn. It turns out, in the battle of The Greatest Socialist Countries That Ever Existed, ours was greater because we not only sold porn magazines over the counter, but we even published our own.

* * *

When you needed something, you went to Uroš, the Slovenian. He could get you a pair of new socks from the storage for two packs of cigarettes, or he could get you a pack of cigarettes for two pairs of new socks. Anything but the bullets, apparently.

It took me three kilos of pork rinds, but I got out of the library with two mostly non-sticky Erotikas, a counseling magazine for all questions of socialist love for your neighbor. Uroš quickly expanded the target audience for his new item on stock by relabeling them to Chicken Rinds. He was good, I’ll give him that. He also told me he could give me a very good price if I could bring him some Skenderbeg, Albanian Cognac, which was the second most exported item by the Albanian Defense Forces.

* * *

I tied The Traitor Dog to a rock, and proceeded to a nearby valley with only Mirela, a teacher who almost drowned, but was saved by two lifeguards, and a few naughty nurses under my shirt. I had the feeling that the dog was even more ashamed by his poor combat performance than I was. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t giving me any shit anymore.

I had negotiated over the radio and made a deal for one Erotika in exchange for 30 bullets and one bottle of Skenderbeg, but their English was so bad that I preferred to have a little extra, just in case things went south.

There were two of them.

“You got fuck?”

“Yeah, I got fuck. You have the bullets?”

“See fuck first”

Mirela crossed the border.

“Good fuck”

“Yeah, I know. Bullets, now?”

He gave them to me in a plastic bag, as if they were cherries. I counted. Thirty-four.

“Skenderbeg?”

“More fuck?”

Three heavily armed soldiers involved in an international smuggling stand-off. And a voice that was not demanding, but pleading.

“One more fuck, yes”, and the nurses went east, too.

He didn’t bother to check this one. He reached in the canvas bag and got out two bottles. He held them up.

“Good alcohol! Good morning!”, he exclaimed proudly. It was evening.

“Good alcohol! Good morning!”, said I.

I took the bottles and went back to The Traitor Dog. It looked up to me, as if saying, “We good now?”

“Yeah, we’re good now, Traitor Dog”, I said loudly, and started back for the barracks.

Not tonight, Son

As he strode to the plate, his bat leisurely resting on his shoulder, Karl knew this was it. This was the moment to settle it, once and for all. While there would perhaps be another chance, this was the first time, that one encounter that will remain etched in the collective memory the longest. And, frankly, he knew this was also his best shot, as time was not necessarily on his side.

He felt good. He got a clean single in the second, put up a good at bat in the fourth before lining out sharply to right field and then walked in the seventh. He was not the same menacing presence in the box he was ten, or even five years ago, but he was still someone you’d rather not face in the bottom of the ninth, with the tying run on first base.

They had a new kid on the mound, a young and cocky fireballer, like so many others sprouting around the league these days. He was just like so many Karl has faced over the years, and yet he was like no one before. For this tall and broad-shouldered lefty was his son.

* * *

Since his first steps on the sandlot, Sebastian was a prodigy. He could run faster than the other kids, he could hit further, he could field cleaner. But what really set him apart was the way he could throw. Smooth and sleek, as only lefthanders tend to be, he would hit his target time after time, throwing faster each time, much faster than a kid of his age had any business throwing.

By the time he was 12, he was hitting 65 on the radar gun. When he was 14, he broke 80 for the first time, striking out 13 in a high school varsity game. By the time he turned 17, he was sitting in the mid-nineties and, that June, went 19th overall to the Oakland A’s.

No one ever called him Sebastian. To his family and close friends he was Basti and to almost everyone else he was Karl’s Kid. So, here he was, Karl’s Kid, just fourteen months after turning pro, in the middle of the playoff race, needing just one more out to close it out.

* * *

Karl’s path to the majors was nowhere as smooth as his son’s was. His nothing was smooth, and he prided himself for owing nothing to nobody, for having earned every last bit of what he had in life. He wasn’t drafted out of high school, and for two years after that he barely played at all. He worked shifts at the meat-packing factory and attended community college, and if it weren’t for that Mets scout who got lost on the dusty roads of Iowa, trying to get to a high-school game and settling for a pick-up game of softball and a cold lemonade instead, neither Karl nor his kid would be in the Majors today. Had he not hit the scout’s car, parked in what he thought was a safe distance, not once, but twice, Karl would have probably gotten his degree in American History and went on to teach in that same godforsaken high school not even scouts could find.

He signed for a $5,000 bonus and spent the next seven years in the minors, getting traded from the Mets to the Brewers, then to the White Sox, then back to the Mets, then to those same A’s he was facing now. They all disliked his lack of pedigree, the awkward hitch in his swing, his ever advancing age. Yet, those meat-packing arms kept hitting and kept hitting hard, and by the time he turned 26, he had 207 minor league home runs. He would not hit another one. On his birthday he was pulled out of the River Cats game in the second inning and on the next day he was the starting right fielder for the Oakland Athletics, who finally decided to give him a chance.

He hit a home run in that first game and quickly became a crowd favorite. He had a good three-year run for the A’s, but right after he made his first All-Star team, he was traded to the Dodgers for three pitching prospects. None of them panned out, and Karl really took off once he went to LA, crowning his career with the NL MVP honors in 2009.

* * *

He was taking the first pitch. He almost always did and everybody knew it, none more so than his son, who for all his life tried to soak as much baseball knowledge from his dad as he could. Still, even now, nobody dared put one right down the pipe. Franky, Sebastian’s battery mate, armed with a good heart and bad knees, set up on the outside corner and barely had to move his glove. Knee high, on the black – strike one.

Well, the game is starting now, both Karl and his kid thought to themselves.

Franky called for a slider. He loved sliders, even against the right-handed batters. And Basti could throw them wherever you asked him to. Franky opted for the back-door one and squatted in the same place as the pitch before. The youngster recoiled and let it fly, starting a good foot off the plate and then whiffing back, as if pulled by some enormous sideways gravitational force.

It was a good pitch, no, a great pitch, just brushing the low and outside corner as it crossed the plate. Yet Karl knew it would be a ball, he knew that Supreme-Justice-Thomas, in his 23rd season as a Major League umpire would not give that pitch, not to a kid in the fifth game of his career, not against someone who has hit 200 home runs in the minors and another 300 in the big leagues, against someone who has paid his dues.

When Thomas remained predictably silent, Karl moved his head in a barely visible nod towards the mound. You have to earn it, Son. You have to earn it.

* * *

Karl did his best to make his son earn it all his life. Even though he made his family financially independent many times over, he made sure Sebastian earned his own allowance, working odd jobs at the local stores. He made him volunteer at the pet shelter. And he made absolutely sure he would never influence any of his youth coaches, all eager to please Karl the Great.

On the other hand he did all he could to teach his kid baseball, helping him with his swing and his throwing every time he had a chance. He stepped outside of the batter’s box, picked some dirt, rubbed it on his hands and smiled. What was it, he thought, ten thousand pitches he threw to his son over the years? Hundred thousand? And now here they were, his kid throwing to him for the first time in his life.

* * *

Franky called for another slider, of course he did. Front office guys were raving about the kid’s spin rate or something, but Franky couldn’t care less about this yuppie blabber. He had played for San Diego for years and had seen Karl deposit more than enough fastballs into Chavez Ravine bleachers. They got a freebie on the first pitch, he’ll take his chances with the sliders on the corner from now on.

Basti shook him off. He always had this air of self-assurance, maturation beyond his years and to him it seemed only natural that he, the rookie, should shake off the 8-year veteran. Yes he had a great slider, but he loved his fastball more. He had faced 17 batters since he was promoted and he struck out 11 of them, and if you asked him he would tell you he could have done it without a secondary pitch.

It is not wise for a backup catcher to get into a feud with the bonus baby wunderkind, not when he doesn’t have a contract for next year, Franky thought, so he reluctantly stretched just one finger. Sebastian quickly confirmed and came to the set.

Karl knew, of course he did. He would have known even without the shaking off, he knew that his kid wanted to prove himself to him, that he wanted to get out of his shadow. That he wanted to overpower his dad, not trick him. He knew and he was ready.

The ball left the mound at 97 miles per hour, headed for that spot just under the hands. It was a beautiful pitch, a celebration of youth and might. On another night, Karl would have watched it in appreciation, realizing just how lucky he was and how far his baby son has made it. But not tonight. There was just too much muscle memory in him, it was just too deep in him not to react.

He saw the pitch, wildly spinning towards him. But he also saw his kid on the mound, he saw him in the nursery, on his first day of school, in his first tee-ball game. He smiled again and murmured. Not yet, Son. Not tonight. And then he started his swing.

Of growing up to be a child again

I was still a teenager when the men in uniform first came to kill me, and when I search for the moment in my life when I ceased to be a child, this is the one I keep returning to.

I had already been away from my home and my family for two years then, but both of those years — as different from each other as they could possibly be — had structure, had people taking care of me, of my daily schedule, of my duties and my free space. They were the years of the almost unquestioning belief in the system and my place within it. They were the years of doing the same I did my whole childhood – playing games, albeit ever changing ones.

Going to the Land of the Free for a one-year respite from life as a 17-year old is as much fun and games as it sounds. But even the year after that, spent in the secluded corner of the Accursed Mountains, sharing the uninhabited patches of nature with the wolf packs and being taught by those same men in uniform how to kill most efficiently, was but a game back then. The enemy was imaginary, and every repeated fired shot, knife stab, granate throw or neck-breaking grip was as far from its murderous reality as long jumps and hurdles were in the years prior. It was a new game, with new set of rules and new opponents to compete against. It was a strange, exhilarating way to spend a part of my childhood and, when we parted ways a year later, I still, very naively, thought that was the last times our paths would cross.

I was still a teenager when the men in uniform first came to kill me, but although I ceased to be a child on that day, there would still be a long time until I would start growing up, for there is more to being a grown-up than not being a child anymore.

One cannot grow while shackled to the ponderous ball of self-pity and I didn’t start for many more years until when, on this day twenty years ago, I would finally walk through the doors of a small student dormitory in southern Germany, in an old blue navy coat, wire rim glasses and uncombed hair and say, “Hi. I’m the new guy here”.

It was just a greeting back then, but with time it almost became a mission statement. What was supposed to last six months never ended, and with each passing day and year on the other side there was a little distance gained, a little more clay available to actively shape my life. A little more perspective to acknowledge and appreciate what so many people have done for me over the years. A little sadness that the new, somewhat wiser and more eloquent me will not have the chance to say thank you to all the departed ones. A little strength to look back and remember, both good and bad.

I started my quest for adulthood on that day twenty years ago, and the gods of my voyage have been very kind to me, granting me a good job, a nice place to live and a wonderful partner. But most of all, I was granted the ability to live my life here and now, and not in the yearnings for some time and place that will never come back. I was given so much more life, so many more days than I thought possible for the longest time.

I was still a teenager when the men in uniform first came to kill me, and while they never succeeded, I didn’t quite survive, either.

But for a long time now, I have been reconstructing the pieces of my former life, gluing them together with memories of love. And perhaps the best thing that my adulthood has brought me is that I have some of my childhood back. That the smell of the fresh bread my father used to bake found its way back to me over the one of burnt flesh; that my mother’s soothing voice again echoes in my memory louder than the terrifying roar of the approaching tanks; that when I close my eyes I see and feel my fig trees and blackberry fields and not the exploding entrails being washed into the cold and dark river of death.

On this day twenty years ago I walked not only into a student dormitory, but into the beginning of my adulthood, too. It was a great ride so far, a gift I never thought I would be given. Today, I am drinking to it, literally and quite heavily, but also to my childhood, the one I have again.

A baseball player’s day at the golf club

It was supposed to be a Sunday spent accompanying our friends and their kids to a Jurassic fossil excavation pit. I know. But, the friends are nice and one of their kids is actually our Godchild, so you do those things from time to time. And it was indeed a Sunday spent accompanying our friends and their kids to a Jurassic fossil excavation pit until the moment where a tennis ball came flying from Heaven.

It turned out that the pit shares a fence with a golf club where they had some sort of an Open Door Sunday. To show his gratitude, the guy whom we retrieved the ball for invited us over, thus mercifully ending our paleontological endeavors. To be fair, he actually invited the *kids* over to play kids golf with said tennis balls, but you know how much crime goes on these days, you can’t be careful enough and should never leave the children unattended.

So, about thirty seconds later, I had filled some sort of score card expressing my interest in joining the club and was assigned an instructor who took me to the driving range. Sunday was saved.

I was given a club and then shown a series of hand grips, slides, finger interlocks, crossovers and whatnots in an elaborate scheme that would put an average NBA handshake to shame. These were (I think) designed to help me understand how to place my hands on the club properly. After two minutes I interrupted the guy, “I know how to grip a bat, mate”, and was finally allowed to take some cuts:

SWINGING STRIKE, 0-1

To start with, I was not given a big-ass club as you see on TV. Actually it wasn’t a club at all, I have no idea why they call them that. It was a tiny thin metal stick. Also, the balls were so small. And they weren’t put on a tee but on some carpet. Which is perhaps not all bad news, because some of my most embarrassing baseball moments did involve balls on the tees. The carpet turned out to be quite helpful, because I could retrace my swing by examining the well engraved mark on it to see what went wrong. So, I adjusted, reared back and let it fly:

SWINGING STRIKE, 0-2

Score one on my consistency – the second mark just deepened the first one, and I’m pretty sure the repetitive skills are what they are looking for in a rookie. By this time I had garnered some additional attention, above the one that might be attributed to the fact that — having chosen our garments to spend the day in a big hole made of stone, mud and dust — we might have been just a tad underdressed for a Sunday in a private golf club.

My instructor saw this as a great occasion to offer some advice. I should concentrate, watch the ball, visualize hitting it without actually swinging. Breathe. So, I did. And he was right, not swinging was the great choice:

BALL, 1-2

I realized the balls were clearly on the outside, so I decided to crowd the plate. Somehow my first two swings prompted the instructor to ask me in that friendly tone usually reserved for suicide prevention hotlines, “So, you’ve never played before?”

I actually did. I played one fraction of one round of golf when I was seventeen. My girlfriend at the time — who, unbeknownst to me, was also the captain of the high school golf team — took me golfing once. My golf career started and ended when I realized she could not only aim better, but also hit balls further. There is only so much your prototypical South European can stomach. Also, I might have been overly emotional because after a month of dating I had just met her father for the first time. An occasion he celebrated by presenting me with a Bible, so there was that, too.

But, I digress. I inched towards the ball and took another mighty swing:

FOUL BALL, 1-2

Now, to each their own, but the golfers didn’t strike me as a particularly intelligent bunch. About ten yards in front of us, there were wooden boards with some warnings or rules or something of a kind. Given, they were placed some 45 degrees to the left and to the right from where we were hitting, but when I get an outside pitch, I *will* drive it to the opposite field. I got a really good hang of that little sucker, and propelled it directly to the board, from where it bounced, with seemingly undiminished velocity, back towards a neighboring box, fortunately unoccupied at the moment, from where it took yet another bounce, all on the line, and landed some thirty, forty yards into the field.

By now, I had *everybody’s* attention.

Other instructors scampered around and took down all the boards. Mine asked me if I might not enjoy swinging with less intent and more control. If the leg kick was really necessary. I calmly explained to him that I saw the three individuals batting before me hit measly 60-yard singles, and that if I were to drive them in then, sorry, I couldn’t risk a ground ball to shortstop. That even a strikeout was preferable to double play. That if I get another pitch in that general area, that then, oh boy, will the pitcher cry.

As it was probably too late to call security now, I was given another try. And then they just hung one in the middle of the zone for me:

HOME RUN

To my great shame, I have to admit I failed to do the club flip. In my defense, I did finish the swing one-handed and I took my sweet time admiring the shot. However, the long gaze was not pimping what turned out to be my first ever 600+ ft drive in any sport, it was just that I couldn’t see where that bloody tiny thing went. In fact, I might have not even realized how far it had gone, if not for a 100-decibel shout from behind me.

Which brings me to my wife and to a piece of advice for you young partner-seekers out there. If you ever find a girl who will accompany your dirty ass into a posh golf club, and then raise her arms, walk off and scream “HOME RUN” from top of her lungs over a murmur of checkered-trousers wearers – you know you’ve got yourselves a keeper.

Don’t send the bread tomorrow

The last time I saw my elementary school is already a few years back. I remember thinking how everything seemed smaller than it did three and a half decades ago, when I walked into it for the first time, carrying a healthy dose of pride, a heavy backpack filled with future knowledge, and brand new pants and blazer, white and smart, courtesy of my mother’s nightly sewing. Yet, apart from the apparent size, the time hadn’t changed it much. It was still gray and brown, like most of the surrounding buildings, and it was still in a need of a little repair here and there. There were still kids running around that same playground where both my arm and my heart were broken, running with the energy and the ease you only have when you are completely unburdened with the pursue of any greatness in life. The building transpired what it always did, that all who entered it were equal, not because anybody could achieve anything they wanted, but because nobody could. The only thing that changed was the name.

Streets, schools, institutions – where I come from, the names don’t last very long. As old men waving from the balconies give way to new men waving from the balconies, so do their visions, their narratives and their truths, their inscriptions on history and on the little plaques on the street corners. Back when I was little, our truth was knitted out of the fine threads of the virtues of communism and out of even finer ones in which brave men and women fought for those virtues and for our country. It was a colorful fabric of heroism and martyrdom, a guiding light of values to shape our lives after. A clear blueprint of not necessarily what is good, but who is and who isn’t.

The man whose bust looked down upon me every time I entered that edifice of primary education was a hero. And a martyr. His bravery was not the one of action, but the one of the strength of conviction which he would, and did, pay for with his own life. He was a school director, I was told, who taught his biggest lesson during the war, on a day when soldiers came to his town and to his school, looking for retaliation. Soldiers had been killed and there were to be 100 civilians executed for every loss of life, 50 for every wound. Staring at the firing squad, surrounded by his pupils, he was offered a pardon. He would have none of it. He chose death, uttering the ultimate words of bravery: “Shoot! Now, too, I am holding a class.”

Seventy years have passed since the man whose name used to grace my elementary school was killed, and seventy years is enough time for a lot of things to change, not only for the names of schools, streets and institutions. It is enough time for the narratives to lose steam and purpose, enough time for the facts to slowly just be. Heroes, too, have expiry dates. With time, a different picture emerged, no less tragic and none easier to fathom. The school director was indeed apprehended and jailed and he was indeed awaiting his execution. During those horrifying hours and days, every single connection anyone in his town had was pulled, every favor one was owed was played on. It was a frantic game in which lives were saved only to be replaced with other lives to be lost, it was humanity that was executed over and over again. The school director’s name found its way to one of the lists with a promise of freedom. The man who was in charge of exchanging the prisoners on such lists for the ones yet to be apprehended held a personal grudge against him and refused to free him. He was executed shortly thereafter, with no final stand, no final words and no class held.

His death was tragic, as were those of thousands who died along his side in those days. He wasn’t greater than life and there was nothing heroic about his death. There usually never is. He was scared, he was imprisoned and he didn’t want to die. He had dreams and fears, friends and enemies, lusts and convictions. He was a real man, not a caricature superhero that someone made him be. We make heroes all the time, be it to spread the narrative of our nation, our ideology or our religion. And when we do, we deny them the decency of empathy with their real struggle. A man tragically lost his life 70 years ago. He was human, not a bust waiting to be toppled or a shrine for someone to preach their tale.

When I look at my elementary school, I see a place where I learned to read and write and a place where I learned to handle numbers well. I also see a place that taught me all the wrong lessons about life, just like scores of elementary schools around the world do every day. A place that taught me that we have the heroes and that they have the villains, and that the only thing I can expect to change in life are the definitions of we and they. I wasn’t taught that when the school director was awaiting his bullet, he and many others found a way to send little messages to their families. I wish I had learned more about them, about the despair of their forlornness. About those who apologized to their families, for they would no longer be there for them. About those who lamented every lost moment they never took advantage of. About those who begged for help, or at least a little food.

It was only years later that I learned about one of those messages. It was short and simple and at first glance impersonal. It was sent just before the execution and it only said: “Don’t send the bread tomorrow”. The family should have it, it would do a dead man no good. I wish I were taught about that, I wish we all were. With no names, no nationalities and no religion attached. Only a story about a person who had to die because we as a society are prone to having people die for no reason, a story about a person who didn’t defend his ideals or make a great speech. About someone who found it in him to help and provide one last time, fully knowing that the world had failed him miserably. I wish we were taught that it was not heroism we ought to pursue, but humanity.

 

Chasing a dream

A few days after winning the 1994 Amateur Baseball World Series, Jimmy Summers entered the house in Eastern Ohio alone. He was about to negotiate his first baseball contract and all he brought to the meeting was a six-pack of beer, a burning desire to play ball and an open mind.

As he reached the cellar, he saw that Kruno and Damir Karin, the representatives of Baseball Klub Olimpija Karlovac, were already there. The brothers K were standing between the bar and the Ping-Pong table, flashing broad smiles and holding a bottle of vodka.

Jimmy looked at his beer and realized that he had brought a knife to a gun fight.

Continue reading Chasing a dream

Welcome

I write from time to time. I also take pictures from time to time, but find it difficult enough to organize my stories here, so there will be no more photographs on this site. You can find some on my Instagram account if you are inclined to do so.

As for what is here, I am making a small selection of the stories I like to tell. So far, the stories have been exclusively based on my life, but I started venturing into writing fiction, too. Let’s see how that goes.

Feel free to comment or to contact me.

Another one bites the dust

I’ll be honest with you.

Had I known from the beginning that the idea of designing a model to estimate the difficulty of blocking every major league pitch is not a new one—let alone a groundbreaking one—I might have spent significant portions of my free time doing stuff that involves sun and physical activity instead. But, I didn’t. And, anyway, as Jovanotti already sang: “Se tutti i grandi libri qualcuno li ha già scritti, mi chiedo ragazzi voi che cosa fate?”

And, yes, I am aware you have no idea who Jovanotti is. Your loss, really.
Continue reading Another one bites the dust