Insa gripped the tiny hotel room sink, but her eyes played in a quiet daisy-dappled garden. The photograph, stuck to the wall with a piece of chewing gum, was all they had left of their homeland. The dinner plates were dry, but she could not turn to face Runti.
“Insa, please. It is time for bed.”
“You are an idiot,” she said, “when you do not speak the language in rivers. It does not matter that in reality you are not an idiot. They squint at you, and you stammer like a child.”
Runti turned the blanket down and fluffed the pillow for his young wife. “Everyone becomes nervous,” he said. He had promised her father to always take care of her. It was part of the deal, which had cost him much of his land. War had taken the rest.
“But you are small,” Insa said, “and your face fills with blood. This is the reason you do not gain a place for us. You must practice articulating the language until the blood flows to your chest rather than your face. When they ask you in what form you earn your money, you must stand as tall as you possibly can and answer with pride that you are a worker, that you build things, substantial things. You do not say, Pardon me, please repeat. You do not cower and blush. Pride must be practiced, Runti.”
“I will I will. Now sleep, my little Insa.”
She turned and inspected the bed, so prettily turned down by her doting husband. She loathed this box of a room.
“I cannot bear another day in this hotel,” she said. “Never a moment’s peace since we have come to this country. The sirens, this angry man across the hall. This booming television upstairs with its pings and buzzers as if life were a twenty-four-hour game show. And they call this refuge? Since two months, never a moment for the thoughts of my own mind. Do I still have one? Runti”—she seized her husband’s arm—“you must practice.”
“For you it is easier. You were a man. You fought a loud war. You slept with bombs ticking. Yet, unacquainted with such things, I suffer more than you. Do you understand?”
“I do. Please, Insa, come and sleep now.”
“You are small, but you are not dumb,” she said, finally taking the three steps to the bed.
Insa was in the habit of retiring before the 10:40 train rumbled through. If it did not wake her, the bitter man across the hall would not either. She would have a chance of sleeping until the gangs started killing one another outside the strip clubs at four a.m.
The gangs, however, were Runti’s trusted alarm clock. As their threats and shots rose from the street below, Runti raised himself on one arm and, smiling, watched his wife sleep. Her breathing was deep, the lines of worry relaxed. She was becoming accustomed to sleeping through hell.
As always, he practiced the language on the way to his job in the factory. To save money for Insa’s dinner, he set out walking at four thirty. He recited the language’s chirpy greetings and starchy formalities until they giggled like bouncing smiles and his chest rose with pride. The darkness was kind. Runti knew, however, that when the landlords began interrogating him he’d freeze up and blush like a schoolgirl. Still, he savored this moment and the broad, eloquent man in his voice.
For the next nine hours, the roar of the factory’s great drying machines drowned out Runti’s drills. The irregular verbs, the prepositional collocations, the past, the present and the ten complicated futures. He shouted soundless self-deprecating apologies. He sang the passive, the subjunctive and the moods. He role-played with imaginary landlords: the cordial ones and the bullies. He was ready for anyone; that is, until the machines ceased and left his feathery voice floating to the factory floor. There was no point in kidding himself. The landlords would look down at him as if he were an idiot; blood would rush to his cheeks. He would never gain a place for his pretty, young wife.
When he returned home, Insa was brushing her hair nervously on the bed. She’d washed it, which was a sign that she felt affectionate. When Runti greeted her, she laid the brush down and took her seat at the fold-up table near the window.
“Please tell me you have practiced, Runti. Today strangers clamored outside the door. I was fearful for my life.”
“Yes, my little Insa. I have practiced all day. Tomorrow is Saturday. we will surely find a place, and the air will be quiet and clean for you. You will see.”
“Tomorrow I must tidy this room,” she said. “It is impossible for me to accompany you.”
Unwrapping a piece of bread for his wife, he puckered and shrugged. He wouldn’t insist. It would be easier without her. With only the landlords to impress, he would be stronger.
“You must stand as tall as you can,” Insa said as she scraped the last bit of margarine from the foil and spread it charily on the bread.
“I will,” Runti said. As Insa swallowed the last crust, the tug of her neck muscles underneath the ripe peach of her skin reminded Runti why he’d parted with his land. “And now, Insa, come to bed.”
She obeyed. He slipped under the sheet and touched his wife’s cool, slender hip.
“I am sorry,” she said. “It is too much tonight. It is too warm and too late. And the train will come through soon.”
“I understand.” He too was weak from the day.
The next morning at the table near the window, Runti read the newspapers he’d collected from the rubbish bins—the poets, the thinkers, the great sentence-builders of the language. He wept as he mouthed so many polysyllabic diamonds, each morpheme packed with mean men, dirty children and rust. Three naked women—a neon sign outside the window—turned the newspaper green then pink then blue. Green. Pink. Blue. The colors of his new country’s flag.
“Runti?” Insa said, sitting on the edge of the bed. “It is seven a.m. You must hurry. Have you circled the announcements? In particular those with a quiet garden far from this place?”
“Yes, yes. A few more minutes.”
“A few more minutes,” Runti said gruffly. The language was a lover that left him breathless and guilty with Insa sitting artless there on the bed, her feet dangling so far above the floor.
“Runti,” she said as she brushed her hair, “other people will arrive before you, and they will speak the language like a new coin. They will sparkle. And they will not have the eyes and jaw of a stranger. They will be large and loud and laughing. You must go now before they have their chance to shine.”
“Just one more minute,” he shouted but laid the newspaper down. Insa seemed more insistent than usual. He did not like to agitate her. He cleaned his teeth, kissed his wife—her arms snug around her middle—and left.
He wandered the streets for an hour before he sat down on a bench and took out the classified advertisements and his pen. The radio in a passing car was playing his favorite song. It was a catchy tune, and Runti was a good singer.
The lighthearted song and the solid tone of his own voice lent him enough confidence to believe that anything was possible. There was a studio apartment for rent just a few streets away. It was on the twenty-second floor of a sixties apartment block. It would be gray and affordably drab. Circling and circling with his pen, he hummed the melody. He raised his head to an imaginary landlord and, in the language, said how interested he was in this beautiful room, how perfect it was for himself and his demure wife, how close to his secure place of employment it was. It was perfect.
He walked down the pavement toward the apartment block, practicing greeting the landlord to the tune of the catchy song. When passersby came close enough to hear his voice, however, he would stop singing and lower his head—a custom from his country to show deference. Finally standing in the shadow of the highrise, he took great care to press the correct buzzer. The door buzzed open and Runti, afraid of lifts, ran up twenty-two flights of stairs.
The landlord was standing at the door. Impatiently he asked Runti what had taken him so long.
“I am fearful.” Runti panted, arching his neck back to take in the full height of the giant before him. “I am honored and fortunate to meet you,” said Runti, as he had learned to say. “I am Runtigel Quisafritifim, but please call me Runti. It is a cordiality.”
The landlord nodded Runti into the one-room apartment.
“It is magnificent,” Runti said, slowly surveying the bare room as if this might make it larger. “It is exactly what my wife, Insa, and I—”
“I’ll let you know.” The landlord thumbed toward a table near the door where already a stack of forms from other potential tenants had started its own little highrise.
Runti sat down at the table, as he had done many times before, and began to fill out the form in his best penmanship. He was proud of his earnings at the factory. He was equally proud to confirm that he had never been arrested and that he had never defaulted on a payment.
You are small, but you are not dumb, Runti.
The landlord took the form and laid it—unread—on the stack with the others.
Runti stared at his perfectly formed letters, which would never be read, and tried to force the blood to his chest rather than his face.
“Please, sir. We are good people. We pay our rent every month, early. And we do not smoke or drink alcohol. My wife, Insa (which means plum in our language), is very quiet and modest, and I am a hard worker. I build things. I have never missed a day of work. You can ask my chief. I have provided his telephone number on the form. He will tell you that I am legal. We do not own a television or a pet. I am allergic to hair, you see. We are very clean. Please, sir,” Runti said and then played his trump: “We pray to the same God.” Runti’s face burned bright red.
“Where’s your little plum now?”
The doorbell interrupted. The landlord buzzed the downstairs door open.
“Sir, you were asking about my wife,” Runti said. “She is home, cleaning our hotel room. She likes everything tip-top clean.”
The landlord puckered.
You are not dumb, Runti.
“We rarely cook. My wife is allergic to garlic. She eats mostly bread and butter. Please. We are small people and do not walk in the flat with shoes on. We are quiet as mice.”
“I’ll let you know.”
The landlord showed Runti to the open door. The next prospective tenants—a jolly, young couple speaking the language in loud, gushing rivers—were already waiting in the corridor.
Outside, Runti sat on a bench and gazed up at the building he would never live in. He struck a match in his mind and watched the highrise go up in flames. He imagined all the tenants streaming from the door, screaming for help so eloquently in the language—and then the landlord Goliath falling from a window, desperate to escape the searing black smoke of Runti’s vengeful imagination. Then he took a few deep breaths, stood up and dusted himself off—a symbol from his country that he had forgiven and moved on.
On the long walk home, he collected the newspapers from the rubbish bins and promised himself that he would practice even harder. His voice would please the next landlord and Insa would have vegetables and fish for dinner. She would no longer spend hours staring at that photograph of her lost garden. All he had to do was practice, he told himself; and so he greeted every tree along the way, discussed the weather with mailboxes, exchanged ideas with parking meters. By the time he reached the hotel, the night-time was a snarl of sirens and drunken youth.
“I have splendid news!” Insa said, opening the hotel room door before her husband could get his key out of the lock.
Runti let his newspapers fall onto the bed and sat down at the little table.
“But you must not be angry with me,” she said.
“What is it?”
“First, you must promise.”
“I too went to search for apartments today.”
“You? But you said—”
“You have promised.”
“I know. I am not angry,” Runti said—but he felt smaller.
She handed Runti a rental agreement. “We must only sign. The landlord has already signed it. See here.” She pointed to the signature on the last page. “And, Runti, there is a garden with a Blue Prince hedge to defend against the clamor of voices.”
Runti read over the intricate wording of the legal document. Such rich, voluptuous ideas couched in rhetoric, buried in clauses, circling tiny specks of meaning like birds of prey.
“I do not understand,” he said finally. “You do not even speak the language.”
Insa turned away. “Do not ask.”
“It is not so different from our own,” she said, her face tinged by the Green Pink Blue of the neon naked women.
Christopher Allen © 2011