in the Balkans. But I couldn’t blame her. I knew little more than she did. Deda kept the details of the genocide just behind his teeth, only letting slip, under his breath, an occasional curse against the “Ustaše.” When I was twelve I asked my father who the Ooh-stah-shay were, and he said they were like the Nazis, only Croatian, and then made an excuse to leave the room. As soon as I learned how to use a card catalog, I began to teach myself the answers instead of pestering my family with questions.
“You could just write ‘Vatican City’?” I said to the man, who seemed old enough to have been one of Hitler’s cronies.
“I do not want the letter to get lost,” he said. “I will find a quarter.” He reached into a tattered Nordstrom shopping bag. When he let go of one of the handles, I thought his entire life’s possessions might spill out. But there was no Ustaša coat of arms, no Swastika, only an English-language Bible and a few other worn books and papers. He drew a quarter from the jumble, held it out to me, and nodded toward the phone booth again.
I stared at the quarter, wondering if there was some way I could get out of this. Perhaps I could just tell him I was Serbian. But since the wars had broken out in ‘92, and each day brought new stories of atrocities by those who might be third or fourth cousins (“Propaganda,” Deda insisted), it had become a habit not to mention my origins. Besides, hadn’t I given him my word? I plucked the coin from his fingers and strode across the street, the man following a few steps behind.
I did not expect him to join me in the glass booth, but holding the door open wide with his elbow, he entered, turning to press against my side. Blood burned in my ears. I could smell pipe tobacco on his breath, mothballs on his coat. Deda sometimes stood closer to people in public than they did to one another, but this man’s hovering felt extreme. I re-assured myself that I’d had Self Defense in college. Figured I could break his birdlike nose if I had to. But as his fingers fluttered against my back, a memory came to me, of how, when I was a girl, my grandfather would sit with me by the fire and shake my waist-long black hair dry with his hands.
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