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Nathan Gehoski

Dead Road

an excerpt

[on a post-doc fellowship to Ukraine; 2008]

       Joe sketches a light trace of himself, a disheveled-looking man alone at a table drinking his coffee, occasionally glancing up and around the room.

         A thin-woman with a short-haired mutt walks up to his table.

          She asks a question.

          He doesn’t understand.

—the woman and her dog sit down.

          She looks back over her shoulder at another dog across the room, a broad-shouldered bruiser who growls at them from between an Asian man and salty looking Slav.

         The woman slips the mutt’s leash under one leg of her chair and gives Joe a here-goes-nothing look as she gets up to order a drink, leaving the Artist in a decidedly awkward spot of his own—his proximity now a responsibility, an owing to owning anxiety which the mutt seems immediately cognizant of, fixing tawny bright eyes on Joe that say—don’t worry, I won’t let anything happen to you!—a reassurance strengthened when it rests its chin between its paws and closes its eyes, calm despite the gruff antagonism of the other canine T-U-F-F who starts whuffing threats echoed in the hostile, side-lipped grumbling of the woman and her companion—

                      you fucking american

        The dog owner returns a few moments later with a plastic dish of water for the dog and frothy beer for herself. She cheerfully salutes him and smiles—

–I only speak English.
         He isn’t sure if he’s telling the dog or the woman or the angry couple across the room; if it’s a rebuttal, or admission or resignation—
–Oh, you’re American?
–I was told to say I’m Canadian.
–Canadians say they’re French.
–No idea, but that is my story.
–I wish I spoke Ukrainian.
–It is a lovely language, you should learn it.
–Do you hate Americans?
– . . . What an odd question.
–Is it?
–For a companion only just met, yes, I would say so.
–I’m sorry . . . my name’s Joe.
–Masha, do you hate Americans?
–No, Joe. I’m Ukrainian. We hate Russians.
–All Ukrainians?
–Enough Ukrainians.
         Joe opens his mouth to speak but the woman lifts a hand to stop him.
–A pause.
–It feels appropriate, doesn’t it? To have a pause. To let the scene breathe.

  A Man in black coat—

  A Woman in a pants suit—

  A precocious eight-year-old scribbling in a coloring book—
  Russian spy

  She closes her eyes. Breathes.

  Joe looks around. Assumes.

  Talking. Buzzing. Walking. Barking. Breathe!


          The woman exclaims, causing Joe to jump slightly in his seat.

–So much better!

–C-can I ask you something—

–Of course!

–This might be a stupid question; but please, in your own words, can you tell me why you hate the Russians?

–Whose words would I use beside my own?

–I’m American—we have a lot of words that use us.

–Such as?–Black . . . white . . . abortion . . . government . . . off the top of my head.

– (nodding at his notebook) You are a writer?

–Yes. A writer. A playwright.

–Do your words use you?

–I don’t know.

–It seems a writer should.

–I think so. We fight a lot.

–You fight your words?

–Mine are notoriously pugnacious.

–I’ve changed my mind; you should learn Russian.

       The woman reaches into her hand bag for a slim, leather notebook and three sharpened pencils with clean pink erasers.

           Joe perks up, interested.

–You’re a writer too?

–Yes. As you say. A playwright-writer.

–I have a hard time believing the luck—two playwrights sit down at a table-

–It’s hardly original—writerly types fraternizing in cafes. But, I want to return to your question. You ask me for my words—the reason why I hate Russians—and I will tell you the two, Russians and words, have much in common—the Russian people—they are like you Americans—or how you describe Americans—how you said it, “We have words that use us.” May I demonstrate?


          She picks up one of the pencils and opens the notebook to a blank page. Joe looks down at the mutt who opens an eye long enough to shoot him a wink and conciliatory pat on the foot—you’ll be fine!

–What is your name?


–Last name?




–Your nationality?

–My nationality?

–Yes, Joe Ferro, your nationality.

–I was told to say Canadian.

–Which means you’re American.

–My mother is a second-generation Spaniard.

–And your father?

–A Mayflower wop.

–What is-

–Italian. Family joke. My grandpa claimed our family to be related to one of Columbus’ crew members.

–Columbus’ crew was Spanish, I believe.


–And the Mayflower came much later.


–Perhaps on your mother’s side you were conquistadors-

–Italian. My father’s family is Italian.

–So, Spanish Italian Joe, family?








–Is my book on the table?


–My book, Joe, is my book on the table?



–Your book isn’t on the table?

–No, it is not.

–Where is it then?

–Where do you think it is?

–On the table—

–No. That is what you say. That is not what you think.

–What do I think then?

–That is the correct question. What are you thinking now?

–I’m trying to think of the Latinate for what you're trying to do—



Confundere—to mingle/mix together.

–So, you’re an etymologist too?

–It’s important to know one’s enemy.

          She lifts her book from the table and holds it high overhead.

–Is the table on my book?


          She drops the book.

–How about now? Is the table on my book?

– . . . It’s touching your book.

–Is it on my book?

–I wouldn’t say that—

–No. Because that is not something an American would say—the table is on my book. Because, as you say, the words themselves are using you—telling you it is NOT a thing to say. But—

         She begins tapping the book on the table. Gently, then louder and louder as she cocks her head

–But words are funny, silly things—

          louder and louder as she cocks her head—

–Small things. Little things.

          cocks her head suggestively

–Such little things we use and are used by—

          cocks her head suggestively at Joe and begins asking over and over:

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       barking loudly asking phones ringing numbers dialing disturbance reporting table table table turning look out around stop tapping stop tapping stop tapping stop reaching out hand to stop—
–Yes. From a certain point of view the table is on your book.
–And what are you thinking now?
–That I want you to stop hitting that poor book with that table.
–And what am I thinking?
–I have no fucking idea.
–Your perspective, did it change?
–Your perspective.
–On what?
–You. My perspective changed on you—
–How so?
–You were acting irrationally—
–Irrational. That is another interesting word—
–Batshit. You were acting batshit crazy. And I want to go now—
–If you go, I’ll scream, American Joe. And I will lean in confidentially to tell you that whatever attention you are trying to avoid, if any, will find you when I scream.

– . . .

– . . .

–That's a pickle.
–We call it a beat.
–What do you want?
–To answer your question, as truthfully as I may—why I hate Russians “in my own words.” . . . But I am afraid I am already a liar. Were I to say these are my words and not another’s in my mouth, I would be lying—for to tell a story, to do it justice, one must use another’s tongue and be used by it in turn—I will tell you why I hate the Russians but it will not be my own words. But another’s.

– . . .

– . . .

–Is this a beat?
–No. This is a dramatic pause.
–Irrational. Let’s start with that word: Ir-rational. As I said, it is a very interesting word, American Joe. The etymology: ratio, rationalis, of reason or reasonable. Ir-in-not. Not of reason or reasonable—Irrational . . .  but what is of reason, Joe? You? An American poet sitting in a cafe with your biscotti and espresso watching people, taking your notes? Is it me? In my apartment next door, watching you from my window, writing about you? About this mysterious, out of place—forgive my French, Canadian Joe—son of a bitch? Is this story rational? The one we tell, not the one we think, but the one we tell. Is it rational?
         She opens her book and flips to a section near the back revealing a set of geometric sketches and a folded newspaper article she carefully sets aside. Joe sees ovals and squares and egg-shaped faces arranged in orthogonal cubes around a central figure, anonymous in every way beyond its centrality—an honorable personage of Euclidean scope—sitting with a pen and open book.

–This is what you were thinking, Joe. This is what all of us are thinking: a setting, a scene, a color, a sound. We make ourselves real by enacting ourselves—acting ourselves—time over distance—space carried through time—a stranger in a strange place in a strange relation—you and I, like pen to page, separate, distinct, yet in our proximity generative, generating—meaning—scene—existing in our shared purpose of occupying a space—when I shout when I scream—when you say “yes” or say “no”—we approach—we make and are made perceptible in our diffident turns—our inspiring difference—

         As she speaks, she begins gently shading in the windows of her little cafe—running her pencil over the figures inside. Covering them with the same opaque artifice of solid-looking brick—a building on a street with nothing more to see.
       When she finishes, the woman places the open book in front of Joe, who turns it around to study the bricks—the newly minted glass and lathe-sharp lines of acid-washed sky. He licks his thumb and presses it to the graphite, directly over where he imagines the figure’s head to be.
          He presses until his knuckles turn white. Asks:

–What’s your nationality?
–I was told to say Canadian.

        He lifts his thumb, revealing the imperfect smudge of a face. Flicks a gesture at the clipping on the table. Asks if it’s a MacGuffin or the real McCoy.

–It is as real as the act it describes.

      She lifts the paper revealing that it is not one article but two: a clipping from a newspaper and a well-worn printout from a website. She lays the newspaper clipping on the table and Joe sees a picture of a smiling, young ginger—the other she holds before her face lifting her glasses to iron-gray hair.

–This is an article from a Ukrainian branch of the Human Rights Watch—you’ll forgive me, Joe, if I paraphrase.

Since the passing of anti-LGTBQ legislation in 2008, incidents of violence against queer and trans people in Russia has gone steadily up. In particular, vigilante groups have been reported luring gay men on dates, during the course of which the victim is beaten, humiliated, and taped—[I suppose with the goal of exposing them]—these incidents of homo- and trans-phobia have also spilled into the streets with violent counter-protests and attacks on gay and trans rallies with the tacit support of the police and federal government. The number of said incidents is reported to be in the hundreds with numerous injuries and even deaths.   


She sets the paper aside, lifting the newspaper clipping from the table.

–This is an obituary from a Russian newspaper:   

Alexi Milovitch, age 19, died of health complications in St. Petersburg on January 14, 2008. He was a university footballer and an aspiring photographer who loved nature and enjoyed camping, hiking, and cross-country skiing. He is survived by his mother and two siblings. A brief memorial service will be held on Tuesday at St. Maria of Lourde’s church at 11am.   



     Masha pulls out her phone and after a few swipes and pokes hands it over to him with earbuds and the caveat:

–I found this on the web. The quality is poor.

         The video is already playing when Joe tunes in—loud voices—shouting—rude juggling sounds—a cough—a cry—the deep sustained grinding of gears and sharp gavel of a starter pistol—he sees a naked man standing in the snow trying to hide his genitals from the camera—a fat man in a parka wandering behind taking long draws off a flask—two young men in front, one scruffy and firing the pistol—the other holding up a hand, thumbs up, across the visual plane of the naked man’s chest—a snowplow idles off to the left, shoveling a mountain of dirty white snow closer and closer to the naked man who seems unconcerned in the cold—shaking but focused—lasered in on the lean man’s thumb which jerks and twitches, teasing the turn and guttural shout—Down! Down! And the naked man flops down, kicking back his legs—bracing himself with one hand—still covering his penis with the other—Up! Down! Up! Down!—the pistoleer firing—firing—firing—on cue—off cue—the naked ginger staggers—falls—stands—snow on his chest—body wracked with sobs that don’t show in his face—his eye—the focus—he doesn’t miss a beat—doesn’t jump the lean man’s cue—he is athletic—young—Joe watches, nauseated with terror and adrenaline as the plow creeps closer and closer—Up! Down! Up! Down! Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. The avalanche, when it comes, burying the prone ginger—and the people—the camera person, a woman by the soprano of her laugh, calling encouragement—the fat drunk in back jumping and clapping—the pistoleer firing shot after shot—the lean, hungry man turning his thumb up and shouting at the pile of snow which moves—which quakes and lifts and explodes as the ginger hops up and out of the pile and even in 2D—even blurred and lagging—exhausted and frostbit and already dying of exposure—even then he stares down his tormentors and the rage shines through—the unyielding fury of the man compressed and contained in simple gestures—the swipe of a hand wiping snow from his chest—the roll of shoulders shrugging away knots—the nod—the nod!—of his head at the thumb which begins to flip, faster and faster—faster and faster—faster until even the compatriots can’t keep up, can’t follow the count, counting counting—up down up down up down up down up down—

          The video ends in the middle of the action. Cuts to black. The ginger in mid-flop. The lean-faced man already moving his thumb up again—the pistoleer beginning to fire—the drunk in back looking away—camera hand shaking—plow idling—it ends and Joe slips the buds out and slides the phone across the table to the woman who lets it sit there between them baking in the afternoon sun streaking through the windows—


–Alexi Milovitch is no one to me—not a relative or friend—he is a name—a man whose story I import, inhabit, export—expropriate—ex-out when I speak it. I hate the Russians for their strength of character—that video, the original goes on for fifty-six minutes and I have watched every second of it, over and over—Alexi, he is Russian—and he does not break—his tormentors—they are Russian and they do not break—they go on—all of them—on and on—over and over—and I hate and I love them for their hard hearts and what they have become, living in that country—I hate what has been made of them—I do not respect them—any of them—not even Alexi—that might shock you to hear—that I do not respect Alexi—that I would even say such an awful thing—but I do—I say I do not respect endurance—the ability to endure torture—I hate the reality of it. I hate the human spirit of it—to accept—to endure—to survive—I ask, Why not conflagration? Why not fighting? Why not charge—attack—fight—kill—die—he died of exposure and injuries—they beat him after he endured—they beat him past endurance and he died and they reported, his loved ones, that he loved the outdoors—I hate that—I hate them for their words—for having anything to say in the face of that—and I understand them too—for their having to have—their saying to say—words to—to try—to try and—and I hate myself—I hate myself for hating them—Alexi—hating him for not fighting harder—I did not realize this at first, my hatred of him—at first I felt horror and sickness and rage—I do not know when it occurred to me—when I looked on him and first hated him—hated myself—when it occurred—when I hated—hated all of us—when I hated myself. But I do. And I did.

 –Does that answer your question?

Nathan Gehoski holds a PhD in English from the University of Georgia, an MA in creative writing from Eastern Michigan University, and a BS in microbiology from the University of Michigan. A writer and educator, he pursues an experimental approach to trauma and its effect across a variety of genres.

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