“Dispatch from a Pandemic: Brooklyn” by Sofi Stambo

sofi art
Sofi Stambo

sam.coronadotsAnd I continue to go to work and come back, and go, and come back, rat racing, or rat walking, so to speak. And that walk is my point, because it passes by the cemetery. I can go one avenue down and avoid the death thoughts entirely, but I don’t want to. Plus Fourth Avenue is nothing to look at: tire shops, delis and ninety-nine cent stores, plastic bags in the trees, and newsprint coupons in the streets and in the gutter. Death, on the other hand, is beautifully assembled one avenue further in this graveyard, and I’m drawn to it, because of my father and my grandparents, whose graves I have not visited, since I live an ocean and a continent away. So I’m visiting these people here. Not visiting, but respectfully passing by them, noticing them, dragging my hand along the spires of the fence and not actually daring to go inside, afraid of the old superstition that a little bit of mud on my shoes, a speck really, could land on the floor of the apartment, and death would shortly follow.

Who are the people buried along the fence, I want to ask someone. In Bulgaria my grandma had told me that those are the suicides. Suicide is a sin; you are not allowed to take away the life which is gifted to you, simply because you couldn’t go on any longer the way it has turned out for you. Priests refuse to sing at those funerals, and those self-inflicted deaths quietly get buried along the fence, since they have to be buried somewhere. So I walk by those people and the plastic bags, which accumulate between their grave stones and the fence, until the cleaning person with the solemn face passes by with his sword, stabs the plastic and yesterday’s coupons from C-Town, and puts them in his extra large trash bag, which looks like Santa’s bag of presents but after the party—wrappings and rotten food.

There’s a lot of material on the subject of after-the-party here. The morning after—the day after— is full of remorse and regret. It’s what we have here and what they don’t, since their last day was yesterday or earlier. Some people still have Christmas wreaths on their graves, even though it’s almost Easter. Some have Easter bunnies. Relatives beautify the graves the way they do their backyards. I only hope they don’t hide Easter eggs here.

In the sky there are two plane vapor trails crossing, as if marking for whoever is above and watching that, here you go, the dead are right below the X. Or maybe, here, obliterate everything around that mark.

In the backyard, which we can see, but can’t use, a five-year-old kid drew on the concrete with chalk yesterday. Neat crosses, seven or eight in one corner. What did the artist try to say, as they had asked us in elementary school, so that we could write an essay on the subject, since all artists are deaf-mute and are trying to say something but more often than not, it doesn’t come across. Our Picasso below is drawing death, I’m afraid, but after he draws even more crosses in the other corner, his mom comes to the rescue and introduces the concept of math and tilts the view point slightly. She turns the crosses into X-es and writes 1+x=2 and introduces the concept of the unknown, which is always better than the finality of death. The kid’s father comes by and leisurely writes the symbol for pi, and the number 3.14, to one-up the mother, and introduce infinity, which is above everyone’s pay grade, and mom and kid go inside to sleep the boredom off. Men sometimes do that; I have a few colleagues who always want to show that they’re better than everyone else and always know more than necessary. Needless to say, no one wants to play with them.  It starts to rain, and the water methodically erases the illustration. The father pokes a stick inside their compost bin, churning the mush inside, ensuring that the rotting process is even and clockwise, the worms and flies equally fed. Then, happy that he has installed his logic and scientific methodology, he goes inside to continue bothering people and things to no end. There is an end actually, which brings me back to where I started.

There’s an excavator in the cemetery this morning, a yellow one with a big bucket like a little boy’s toy. It’s propped up on two big pieces of plywood to keep it from sinking into the mud. Five construction workers wearing yellow hard hats and safety vests are just standing around, while the one in the cabin is slowly moving the bucket in the air, dangerously close to everyone’s hard hats. I hope he is not hungover on this overcast Monday morning. A man in a suit with a sheet of paper in hand stands in front of the formation, fat and important; he’s the boss, the one who cuts everyone’s check. His paper is getting wetter, from the drizzle. They are probably the planting brigade, I think. I always and sincerely think like this. Someone was planting daffodils and hyacinths last week, beautifying, you know, so here they’re probably starting with the trees. There’s a magnolia, which recently exploded in the cemetery. I hope there is a way for the dead to see her, someone should see those gorgeous flowers, otherwise, I think, what’s the point. What’s the point of all this beauty taking a year to develop and being there for only a day or two, completely unseen. Then I wonder, do the birds see the beauty? Are they happier when the flowers are in bloom, does it matter at all to them if it’s a flower or a plastic bag on that branch?

I’m aware that this is a graveyard and I check a small heap of soil or bones and skulls, but there aren’t any. I think about my poor Yoric, the gravedigger holding the skull of his friend, talking to him, as if Yoric could hear. I strongly want to believe he could. If he doesn’t, someone please remind me again what the point is? Gypsies in black suit jackets dig up the graves in Bulgaria by jumping into the holes, to be able to move their shovels. You pay them what you pay them, they ask for some more, you give some more, and you leave, walking quickly because there are all sorts of shady characters hiding in the graveyard, who can rape or rob you if you’re lucky, or stab you if you’re not, and over just a few dollars. The graveyard is like a jungle, beautiful and deadly in a completely different language.

The soil is sandy and yellowish, like in my granddad’s garden in Varna. “This is because the sea is close by,” my grandma still explains in my head. If you felt like digging deeper you will find shells and salty water. I don’t, and I continue walking to work and forget about this whole affair. This is the day I am told I’m not essential. “I am too,” I say in a tone no one hears, because I always avoid confrontation.

On my way home, the drizzle has turned into a full-blown cry, hysterics really. My umbrella is completely symbolic and my new blue jeans are dripping blue rivulets down my shoes. My coat twists around my legs and I stop, seeing I’m at the same place I was this morning. I remembered it was around the Thirty-Third Street sign. You remember thirty-three for some reason. The yellow pile of soil is wet and squishy. I feel an inappropriate desire to take a handful and sculpt a figure from that clay. It’s possible, since the pile is about arm’s distance from the fence. All these sculptures of angels and urns make you feel like you can sculpt too.

It looks like someone had build a sand castle, but then a mean child or an unexpectedly large wave came by and smashed all the towers down to a heap, turning the castle into an underground hut for not kings, for guerrilla fighters to hide in and homeless people to sleep. We buried each other on the Varna beaches like that, a sandwich with a person under a sandy bun.

I stand there, dripping. So he did commit suicide after all? How do I know he’s a he? The father of the kid on the second floor in our building in Varna had hung himself with his belt in their basement, my grandma had told me when I was about five, because he found out he had cancer. This is why in Bulgaria no one tells people when they have it, otherwise there will be a countrywide shortage of belts.

So they didn’t plant a tree after all, but a person. A yellow pile of mud and a bouquet of yellow roses. This is the long and short of it.

–April 5, 2020



Sofi Stambo won the first prize in fiction in 2015 Dzanc Books/Disquiet International literary contest and the second prize in 2016 No Tokens fiction contest. She was a finalist in the American Short Fiction contest. Stambo was selected by WIGLEAF for their 2016 best flash top list. One of her stories was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2018. She has been published by Promethean, Epiphany, The Kenyon Review, The MacGuffin, The Avalon Review, New Letters, Fourteen Hills, New England Review, Stand, American Short Fiction, Guernica, Agni, Chicago Quarterly Review, Granta Bulgaria and Tin House.