In the tiny village of Ob, one of many villages that kept their distance from one another in a small country, there lived a poor man. He was so poor he didn’t have a last name. He gave his son the only gift he could: a name that would set the boy apart for greatness: The Stob.
This was the last in a series of final straws for his wife,
–You know this child will be The Stob of Ob? That doesn’t bother you?
She wanted to leave the man and his seven children but, staring into the baby’s narrow grey eyes, she couldn’t bring herself to it. Wasn’t it bad enough to have the stigma of his name, let alone the stigma of growing up without a mother?
The other children saw nothing strange about The Stob or his name.
–The Stob, it’s your turn to take the garbage out.
–I hate you, The Stob.
–Come here, The Stob, I’m going to pound you.
During his babyhood, she tried calling him The Stobbie to soften the barbarity of his name. He was an odd-looking creature. He had the same body type that distinguished their village: long arms, short legs, thin chest. But The Stob had wide meat-plate hands, a lozenge-shaped head with a whorl of dark hair that stuck up in the middle.
The Stob grew slowly which led to the obvious nickname The Stub until he had a growth spurt at 13 and stretched to 6’ 3”. He proved good at running and wrestling. Girls who read zombie romances and listened to Morrissey and Coldplay found The Stob attractive: his clumsy fingers and narrow grey eyes.
He was fond of the eggs that his mother collected from their two old hens, but he craved more yellow, butter, sun, satin cushions, thick wool sweaters. No one wore yellow in Ob. The color worked its way into his morning dreams, interrupted his daydreams, found him when he stared into the early night. Night always came early in Ob.
His secret obsession: The exotic TV ads for cruises. Everyone looked stupidly happy: the passengers, the crew, the cooks, the engineers. The captain wore a yellow flower in his buttonhole and danced with the old, smiling passengers.
The young staff members wore black and white uniforms. They moved efficiently, helping the passengers around the ships, even carrying them in their strong arms down the boarding planks. They carried trays or heavy-looking baskets of fruit and bread. The Stob thought, I could do that.
The harbor at Ob was too small for a cruise ship, but The Stob kept a close eye on the few container ships that stopped once or twice a year. The thin-mustached purser wheedled The Stob into his bunk for a single passionate night. The Stob was more passionate about the bunk and the tiny room. This was what adventure looked like. The purser didn’t think much of the container ship.
–Me, I’m going to get a nice little job on a cruise ship. That’s the life, my son. All the food you can eat, if you know what I mean. Them cruise ships go all over.
–But not from here. I have watched for them.
The purser laughed.
– This is the back of beyond, mate. You wanna get to a big city with a real port.
–Where is that?
–What’s the capital of your own country, you tin-brain? Never heard of Thenia? It’s not major, like Frottomir or Billingjug, but it’s got ships.
–Where is Thenia?
–Blimey. Do I have to teach you everything? Turn over.
The geography lesson was graphic and memorable. Ob was on the west coast. Thenia was on the east coast. It would be a long, hard journey to get from one to the other. The purser made a present of a stained t-shirt and a few dollars.
But for The Stob the world now had windows, doors that could be opened, walked through, left behind. He washed and packed the stained t-shirt along with his best white shirt and the other few clothes he had.
–I am leaving.
His mother stopped scraping a pot and wiped her wrist across her forehead.
–What do you mean?
–I am going to find a place where there is more.
–I don’t know. More than there is here.
She banged the pan with the scrubbing brush.
–We have all the beans we need. We have eggs.
–And twice a year we have a dance on the old green.
– Mother, it is only painted concrete.
–But it used to be a real green, and that’s what matters.
–Even so, I am leaving.
She saw there was no reason why he should stay. His brothers and sisters were too many to care about whether one of them left or stayed. They would probably be jealous that he was going, purely because he was doing something they weren’t. But eventually the Stob would fade from their memory. Why were they so self-absorbed? They were losing their brother, the one who always, who never, who used to—
She couldn’t think of a single thing The Stob had done.
–Where will you go?
The Stob remembered a TV commercial.
–It’s on TV.
–TV is nothing.
The Stob stared at her with his strange grey eyes.
–TV is everything, Mother.
204 miles to cross the entire island. The Stob had no money for a bus or food or a place to stay. And he knew he must become invisible to avoid the men in uniforms who stared at desperate-looking boys who traveled on foot.
When he finally arrived in Thenia, he knew enough about authority to deflect attention, to salute and bow, to walk away but not too quickly.
Thenia. Paradise. Yellow melons the size of footballs. Pomegranates, figs, fresh dates and milky-fresh cashew nuts, picked and roasted straight from the bush. They had so much that they hardly noticed him stealing seeded buns, a green pear. He slept beneath the pier with three drunkards who wanted to cuddle him. The Stob, who had taken the assistant ship’s cook’s knife, fended them off.
He soon found the Nuerika cruise ship office and signed on as a singing waiter. The recruiting officer, recovering from a recent heart-break, liked The Stob’s strange eyes. He wiped his mouth with a handkerchief embroidered with violets.
–You’ll have to get cleaned up. They’re par-tic-u-lar about hygiene.
The Stob nodded eagerly, looking around for a sink.
The officer folded the handkerchief carefully and put it away,
–Has anyone told you that you have eyes like Gordon Guthrie? Now, he can sing. Can you sing?
The Stob cleared his throat so he could produce the groaning-shriek necessary for the renowned Ob folk song,
–This is the stone we broke our teeth on, this is the green slime from the old bucket—
The officer stopped him,
–You certainly have volume. I expect you could be heard all over the ship.
The Stob waited while the officer looked him over.
–You’re not fat. I’ll say that for you. And we need some seasonal workers. I suppose you’ll do. Your job is to make sure they laugh. That’s what they come on the cruise for.
The Stob nodded. It wasn’t something that attracted him. On the rare occasions that his family had laughed, they covered their mouths in embarrassment. The Stob was once startled into laughing when a kitten poked its head out from a rusted bucket, the small pink tip of its tongue sticking out. He distrusted something that made him feel so exposed.
The Stob learned that the passengers had to laugh all the time or the staff’s wages would be docked. There was Targeted Laughter: shows, impromptu sketches by the staff, staged trip-and-falls during meal times. Then there was Random Laughter: mail delivery, pre-entertainment, meal and drinks delivery. There was Optional Massage Laughter. These were considered penalty-free. Even the management acknowledged the difficulty of making someone laugh while they were wrapped in seaweed.
Some of the passengers were admitted to Over-Laugh Therapy. These were the ones who complained about SSWL, Sore Stomach While Laughing, VWL Vomiting While Laughing, FOLCWL Fainting or Other Loss of Consciousness While Laughing.
It was a relief to join the other stewards during 20 minute morose breaks (also known as Happy Times) in the ship’s depths, dreaming of cigarettes. Someone loaned him a copy of Pushkin that was more real than the hyenas upstairs who behaved as though life was a tissue to blow their noses on.
The Stob learned “Prisoner” by heart: I’m sitting by bars in the damp blackened cell—He traded the book for the knife.
The Nuerika ship sailed for 38 long, laughter-filled days. After a while, The Stob didn’t hear the cackles, titters, belly laughs. It was just noise, like the ship’s engines.
He stood at the ship’s rails as they docked in Nuerika. Where is our dinner, raven/Under this indifferent heaven? He didn’t have to wonder. There was yellow food everywhere: Mustard and buns and bagels and pizza and cheesecake and donuts and curry. Trucks that drove food around the city: Korilla BBQ, Food Is Love, Tacos El Vagabundo, Veronica’s Kitchen, Uncle Gussy’s. He stared into the window of the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop. The ice-cream boys waved him in and introduced him to their vanilla, the yellow of pure lust.
Their friends had just lost a roommate to marriage. An hour later, The Stob left with their address. He walked the fifteen blocks to a dirt-grey building, up five flights of stairs to an apartment where Nick and Lame-o, perpetually stoned students, rented him the room and suggested he try pierogis.
–What is pierogis?
–Manna from heaven, dude.
Another perpetually high student joined them.
–Who’s getting pierogis?
–My man, The Stob.
They gave him money to buy pierogis.
Nick and Lame-o, were right. The pierogis were the food he had waited for all his life. They were soft. They had bacon, potatoes and the yellowest cheese he’d ever seen. There was no cabbage. Heaven.
–Stobbo, you rock, dude.
Stobbo. He tried his new name out, chewed it with his pierogi.
–In my place, my name is The Stob.
–You’re shittin’ me.
The Stob shrugged.
–The Stob, like with the the?
The pierogi claimed his attention. He didn’t listen to the rest of the conversation.
Lame-o worked as a night dispatcher with a freight train crew. He got The Stob a shift, coupling and uncoupling the cars, replacing the heavy couplings and air brake hoses. The Stob took easily to the manual work. He sent half his first paycheck wrapped in greaseproof paper to his mother. He included a letter: I am fine. I am working. I like pierogis and Pushkin.
His shift ended as the young moon was fading in the early sky. The saddened crescent, in the morning skies/Meets the young dawn full of the utter gladness/One is in flames, another cold like ice.
He rubbed his hands together. It would take the sun a few more hours before it melted the night cold.
And still he felt a kind of lifting whenever he came off his shift at dawn. The fading moon. The color flooding into the sky.
He began to notice the darting looks from girls heading to the clothing factory as he came off his shift. He thought they were mocking him, but when one in a green coat tried a shy smile while her friends giggled, he understood. He stood in front of the mirror after his shower. Muscles in his neck. Thick forearms. Wide, scarred hands from handling the couplings. His lozenge-shaped head somehow perched on top of all the maleness.
On Friday morning she stopped him.
–Hi. You work the night shift?
–Well, lucky you. You’re going home now.
She smiled again.
He spent the weekend walking around the streets, looking into shop windows and wondering if the dresses, shirts, pants were from her factory.
On Monday, he was ready for her.
He pointed to her pants.
–You look nice.
–You like music? Splitting Bricks are playing this Friday.
–A band. They’re good. My friends are going.
–I buy the ticket?
–You buy the tickets on the door. They’re six dollars.
Relief. A matter of twelve dollars for two tickets.
–I will buy the tickets. For you and me.
He saw her feel his words arrive. You and me.
–I’d like that.
She turned to go. He put out a hand.
–Please. Where is it? Where they will play?
She gave him the address. He said it over in his mind on the bus. He said it as he walked home from the bus stop. He found a pencil in Lame-o’s room. Wrote the address in thick letters on a pierogi receipt and put it on the small table next to his bed: 9pm. Friday night. The Bingham Marsh.
He had forgotten to ask her name. He couldn’t remember the color of her eyes.
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday: each was a sweating of embarrassment and longing. What did The Stob of Ob have to say to a Nuerikan woman? What if he hated Splitting Bricks? The nearer Friday came, the less he wanted to see her.
What was her name? He couldn’t even call after her on the street. In Ob, the preferred method of calling someone was yelling “Hoi!” or heaving a rock. That wouldn’t work here.
On Friday evening, he dressed in his best white shirt and black pants. The shirt had a small tear under the right arm, but it wouldn’t matter if he kept his arms by his sides. He put on his coat and left for the Bingham Marsh. He walked the twenty-two blocks, his wallet with the $20 zipped in the inside pocket.
What would he talk about with her? He could ask her name, but after that? He had thought of asking advice from Lame-o and Nick, but they were already stoned for the weekend.
Only the poems of Pushkin came to him. It seemed too soon to be reciting love poems. He passed markets, owners taking in their baskets of vegetables, boxes of oranges, racks of newspapers.
He arrived at the address and wondered if he was early or late. But she was already there in a black jacket over jeans and flat shoes. He felt over-dressed.
He stood next to her in the line,
–I am here.
–You know, I haven’t even asked your name. Mine’s Larisa.
–It’s a beautiful name. Larisa.
He didn’t know if it was beautiful. It wasn’t a name he’d heard of.
–The—the, well, some people call me Stobbo.
–Stobbo. The Stob. Just Stobbo.
–Stobbo. I like it.
She turned to her friends and introduced him. They looked startled and turned back to talk to each other, leaving him alone with Larisa.
He tried conversation,
–I like your hair. The same as the color of this rotted metal. Rust. We have much rust in Ob. Where I come from.
Her eyes widened.
–Not yellow, not red, but somewhere in the middle.
The line started moving and soon he was handing over his $20, receiving his change, having his large hand stamped. Larisa’s hand was tiny next to his. A small, white, flat, fish. He was pleased with the poetic thought.
Inside the club the music gouged his ears. Larisa and her friends liked it. When he said something to her, she put her face right up to his.
Everyone bought drinks. He didn’t know he would have to buy drinks. He put his head down and tried not to notice that people were walking past, hands grasping glasses of beer. But Larisa bought him a drink and yelled into his ear.
–It’s only fair. You bought the tickets.
Her voice was different inside the club: hard and bright.
When the first band came on, he thought they were Splitting Bricks, but it was someone else. They all wore black and played loud, sad music.
He tried to listen to what Larisa and her friends were saying, but it was mostly laughter and Larisa didn’t explain anything.
There was a roar and the crowd surged forward to the small stage as a small, hoarse-voiced man announced Splitting Bricks. Larisa and her friends were pushing their way to the front. The Stob followed them.
He had no idea what the band wore. They ran out on stage, picked up their instruments and began screaming. They screamed into the crowd and the crowd screamed back.
He couldn’t decide if he was damp from his own sweat or the sweat of others. Just as he took his jacket off, someone jumped into the air and caught The Stob under his right arm. His shirt ripped all the way around the armpit.
He looked around to see if Larisa had noticed, but she was also jumping up and down with her friends, waving her small hands.
Then the lead singer leaned down and howled right at The Stob. You don’t fool me. Or was it You don’t fail me?
He wasn’t a failure. He had come from the west. He had worked his way. He had a job. He had a place to live with roommates. He almost had a girlfriend.
The lead singer yelled close to Larisa, and she flipped her hair back and yelled back.
And The Stob was tired of it all: the stupid jumping, the stupid music, and Larisa who wasn’t even paying attention to him.
He reached out and grabbed the mic from the singer and bellowed into it.
–Who’s the killer and why did he do this? Who’s the killer and why did he do this? Who’s the killer? Who’s the killer?
The singer tried to get his mic back, but the crowd roared behind The Stob. Hands pushed him onstage. Someone grabbed his torn sleeve and ripped the rest of it off. He gripped his jacket with one hand and the mic with the other.
The Stob’s narrow grey eyes stared into the screaming mob, at Larisa now looking up at him, at the mic in his hand, his shirt ripped open. He opened his mouth,
–Where is our dinner, raven? Where’s our dinner, raven? Under this indifferent heaven? Where’s our dinner, raven?
The lead guitar took over in a storm of distortion.
He bellowed on,
–The killed knight is lying now. The killed knight needs his falcon. The killed knight is lying now. And where is his falcon? And his faithful black mare? And his wife, the young and fair, shouts my god is he alive?
With him, the crowd chanted Alive! Alive! Alive! Alive!
That one word beat hollows into his skull, a great screaming hymn.
He ran out of words and handed the mic back to the lead singer. Hands grasped The Stob floating him around the club. He stared up at the pounding sticky ceiling, clutching his jacket. Finally they put him on his feet.
Someone handed him beer,
–You do this a lot?
–I am new to screaming.
–You’re a natural. All that stuff coming up from inside you.
–It is Pushkin.
–You could be big, like, TV big.
The Stob knew nothing about being big, but he did want to get back on the stage. That feeling, like he was a big metal pipe, the words bounced around inside until they rushed their way out.
Outside in the cold air, people clapped him on the shoulder, You did good, man. You with the band? Off the chain.
He couldn’t see Larisa and thought she must have gone home.
A group of girls shouted from across the street. Alive! Alive! Alive! One of them, dark-red mouth, crossed and stood in front of him, staring at The Stob’s torn sweat-soaked shirt, bare right arm. Her jeans were so low he could see the tattoo on her right hip below the dirty yellow shirt. Short legs. Long arms. A stuttering of scabs across one wrist. She said,
–Long way from home. You.
The tattoo: Ob in gothic lettering. Narrow, green eyes.
He felt the moment waiting. He felt the word fill his mouth,
She didn’t smile.
A rush of something that swept his breath up. He put his hand up to stop his heart shouting. I seem to see your eyes that, in the darkness glowing, meet mine…
She leaned in, the tip of her pink tongue just showing; whispered,
Handed him his name and walked away, her friends’ laughter banging the walls down the street. He watched her go. What means my name to you?
He began walking, his breath-clouds lighting up, disappearing between streetlights. Palms aching-hot, striding thighs tight under his torso, spine lifting, uncurling-up.
In his village, if he’d ever wondered what the inside of his mind looked like, he might have thought slate quarry. Now, the dead-grey rock bowl had been blasted; great jagged holes shot with shining bolts of light. These raw hands, this bare arm thrusting out of the torn shirt: all of it overtaken by the wanting and more that was the flaring rush and the screaming and the sweating crush of bodies.
He saw nothing of the long walk back to the apartment where Lame-o was curled in the armchair, and Nick, half-on, half-off the sofa. Four tomato-stained pizza boxes, thirteen empty beer cans, a few un-popped corn kernels in a blue, plastic bowl.
The Stob stood in the doorway of his room. The hall light gave him his dark reflection in the small, unwashed window. In the morning he would see other apartment building windows; the old woman with her cigar, the middle-aged guy doing his bicep curls, the mother holding her kid up to see the world.
Uneven steps. Lame-o appeared at the end of the corridor, used the walls to help him stumble into the bathroom.
Mornings in Ob. His mother coming in from the garden, transferring brown eggs into a red plastic bowl. His job: to carefully wash each one, feeling the weight, the smooth shells. Maybe this was it: to be new and enclosed and ready to spill.
The toilet flushed and Lame-o reappeared. Stared at the wrecked shirt, sweaty hair, fierce eyes.
–Stobbo, my man. Looks like you just got laid.