Visiting Uncle Bardakçı (Part 2)

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(The following is the second part of a three-part fictitious short story. Read part one here. )

The ferry continued rocking back and forth after it docked at the Karaköy terminal. Swept forward in the haste of bodies rushing across the gangplank, Kiera was lost in her own thoughts. Not even 30 steps into Europe, something fell from the sky, hit her shoulder, and splattered across her long neck. Please be water, she thought as her pace began to slow. Dear god please let that be water. Kiera stopped in the middle of the endless crowd, shoulders and knees bumping and brushing past her. The telephone wires above Necatibey St. were sagging with pigeons, waiting to drop more good luck on the fortune-starved souls hurrying on.

Good luck, Kiera reminded herself as she wiped the milky rivulet of pigeon shit from her shoulder, carefully mopping up all the blessings still wet on her collarbone. "When a bird shits on you in Turkey," she remembered her father once half-jokingly, half-seriously telling her over the phone, "you should play the lottery immediately."

Five minutes later, Kiera stopped off at a bar at the mouth of a graffiti-covered alley to make sure she'd cleaned it all off. Good luck or not, she didn't want to meet her uncle for the first time covered in shit.

After cleaning up in the bathroom, Kiera met eyes with a handsome young man sitting in the corner near the entrance. He continued talking to his girlfriend without taking his green eyes off Kiera. The young man instantly understood that she was not Turkish by the boldness with which she held his gaze. Kiera stopped midstride, smiled, and elbowed her way up to the bar. The place was hopping. Warm amber light filled the spaces between bodies, reaching the patio where students sat veiled in drowsy clouds of hookah smoke playing backgammon as their grandfathers had taught them. Beyond the ever-present university students, the nightly crowd made for an interesting mix: an architect or two; grisly-looking folks who worked in the neighborhood and had stopped off on their way home to the crumbling Kurdish district of Tarlabaşı; fast-talking "event planners" and club promoters with slick hair and unbuttoned striped shirts; a street vendor who sold antique postcards out of a scuffed briefcase and allowed kittens to sleep on top of his second-hand merchandise whenever business was unkind. Couples and a few larger groups sat beneath storms of dust motes swirling in the overhead lights. Most people seemed happy in the company of friends, though a few sat alone staring at the ice cubes dissolving in their drinks. Even fewer just sat unmoving, glaring ahead at the spiteful wall-length mirror behind the shelves of spirits overlooking the bar. Reluctant to leave the anonymous bonhomie of the crowd, Kiera tossed back a shot of single malt Scotch and paid her tab, Mr. Green Eyes still beaming at her as she pushed the entrance door out into the cool evening.

When she arrived at her uncle's house half an hour later, he was standing out front of his building waiting for Wittgenstein, his German Sheppard, to pee on the curb.

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"Kiera, my dear, you've made it," her uncle said when she called out his name from the other side of the street.

Seeing a version of a father whom she had never met smiling at her, Kiera's first instinct was to bolt down the block back to the warmth of the bar. She forced herself to take one step forward, another, and then another. Her uncle had a narrow, expressionless face. They both stopped short of giving each other a hug. Looking back and forth between her uncle and his mild-mannered dog, she sensed that the German Sheppard understood, and perhaps could even speak, more Turkish than she ever would.

A look of sorrow flickered in her uncle's eyes as he walked backwards toward the apartment building and asked Kiera if she was in Istanbul on business or pleasure. However, he quickly rearranged his face and began smiling again as he held the lobby door open and Kiera followed him inside up three flights of stairs. She misread that smile. Got it dead wrong when she thought--hoped, really--that he was smiling to diffuse the initial discomfort of their encounter.

"Mahzun...Am I pronouncing it correctly?" Kiera asked.

"Yes, yes, but you can just call me 'uncle' if you'd like."

His wife was waiting for both of them at the entrance to their apartment.

"Very nice I meet you," Mrs. Bardakçı said in the little English she knew before hugging Kiera and guiding her inside. "Shoes...ahhhhh...how I say?" she asked her husband through a rose-colored flush of embarrassment.

"She means to say that in Turkey we don't wear our regular shoes inside our home. Here, you can use these," Mr. Bardakçı said, bending down to retrieve a pair of beige house slippers.

Their apartment was spacious. Books, arranged tranquility, jazz album jackets hanging on walls in museum-quality glass, Miles and Coltrane, Herbie and Wayne. The sun had set sometime between Kiera's winning numbers plopping on her shoulder and her arrival. Only a few faint lights glowed inside, bejeweled lamps casting grey shadows on the Turkish rug that felt incredibly forgiving beneath Kiera's slippered feet.

"You read much?" Mr. Bardakçı asked as Kiera's eyes jumped around the three large bookshelves spanning the living room and half of the adjoining dining room.

Kiera nodded.

"Do you write as well?" he asked.

She nodded again, hopeful he'd allow her to inspect his well-preserved collection. Kiera's dark eyes ran hurriedly across the spines of a large French language section that occupied two-thirds of a seven-foot-tall cedar bookshelf, two rows of Arabic volumes, and a relatively meager row of English books on the bottom shelf. The other two bookcases--one of which was encased in glass and required you to unlock it with one of those antique keys that the bearded unicycle set in Brooklyn would (ironically) die for--were filled with Turkish poetry, Ottoman scholarship, biographies of Atatürk, and Turkish translations of the monuments of eighteen- and nineteenth-century European and Russian literature. Mr. Bardakçı looked on in silence, distrust still lingering in his eyes. Kiera tried to find some pattern in the books that would help her understand her father. Standing with his arms folded behind his back, her uncle radiated gravity, prudence, and detachment. He regarded his three-case collection like something sunken long ago in the livelier seas of his youth, a lost city of orphaned ambitions.

"There's an old Turkish joke. What are the two shortest books in the history of nations?" Mr. Bardakçı asked Kiera.

"You got me."

"England's cookbook and Germany's book of humor," he said, laughing at his own joke as if hearing it for the first time.

"Any favorites?" Kiera asked once he'd finished.

"In English? Or any language?"

"Let's say English."

He craned his head up toward the upper shelves of French volumes. "Où est-il? Ah, is this...yes, the original French version of L' usage du monde by Nicolas Bouvier."

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"It's a novel?"

"No my dear, this is a most peculiar work of non-fiction, arguably the greatest travel narrative written in the twentieth century. It is truly a hypnotic text..." Mr. Bardakçı said, trailing off as he began flipping through its pages in search of one of the passages he'd underlined as a graduate student living in the cafés of Beyoğlu. "Aha! Here it is. Shall I translate it for you?"

Sensing it didn't matter whether she said yes or no, Kiera played along and nodded her assent.

"Bouvier is describing an encounter during a road trip he and his painter friend took in a beaten-up Fiat from Geneva to Afghanistan and a dozen unforgettable points in between. In Iran, they meet an American engineer named Robert who was building schools for poor Iranian children on behalf of the US government. Of course, the school is an utter failure before Robert and his crew even finish building it. The local children throw rocks at Robert and half the building materials end up missing."

He looked back down at the book in his hands and remembered he'd been gifted an English translation of the book by one of his former students. It took some effort, but he bent down and humbled himself to the lower levels of the cedar case where he'd relegated his English translations of Turkish, Western European, and Latin American literature.

"Just a moment...yes, here we are. Let's see...right then, so Bouvier, concluding the incident with the American civil serviceman's disillusionment with his failed project, puts it quite memorably," Mr. Bardakçı said. He cleared his throat before beginning his recitation: "'It is not so easy to admit that what works at home mightn't work abroad; that Iran, that old aristocrat who has known all about life--and forgotten much--is allergic to ordinary medicine and calls for special treatment. Presents are not so easy to give when the children are five thousand years older than Santa Claus.'"

Mr. Bardakçı allowed a measured laugh once he'd finished reading the passage. Kiera, meanwhile, had a dozen swift crosscurrents rushing through her chest. Was her uncle implying that she was that kind of American? The type that watches the evening news and doesn't understand why those countries over there don't understand that we are trying to help them? When would her dream agent finish reading her manuscript? Could she stop holding her breath? Was this finally the one? Would Pinochet's Bastards be on shelves by the time she returned to the US next year? And then there were those green eyes still hovering at the edge of her thoughts, more immediate, more pressing than the questions about her father she'd come to Istanbul to unpack.

When her uncle's wife asked if she was hungry, Kiera replied "Yes!" louder than she'd meant to. Kiera laughed inwardly, knowing that her Yokohama-born mother would have fainted from embarrassment if she'd heard her. A home-cooked meal would allow her to clear the brush crowding her mind.

Two hours and four courses later, each of which had been meticulously prepared and served in intricately patterned blue and white plates and bowls that seemed to breathe even more vitality into the food, Mr. Bardakçı asked Kiera if she'd ever tried rakı, Turkey's national drink. He nodded to his wife. She got up without a word and retrieved a bottle of rakı from a glass cabinet in the corner of the dining room.

"Would you like to try some?"

"Sure, I mean, I'm normally a scotch on the rocks type of girl, but when in Rome--"

"Precisely, when in Constantinople, or as we say today, Istanbul, do as the Istanbullus do."

His wife returned from the kitchen with two rakı glasses, narrow as shot glasses but twice as tall, and a sweating pitcher of ice water. Mrs. Bardakçı placed everything very precisely before her husband on the table, as if partaking in a ritual.

"Rakı," he said, pausing to carefully pour the milky liquid to the halfway point of each glass, "is much more than a drink. It is a philosophy, or perhaps more accurately you could say that it is a way of being and relating in the world." He topped off the rakı with water, plopped two square ice cubes in each glass, and stirred gently. "Shall we?" he asked once he'd finished preparing their drinks.

Kiera took a long sip from the potent drink, the fiery licorice taste coating the back of her throat and releasing a floodgate of warmth in her body.

"Kiera my dear, how do you find rakı?" Mr. Bardakçı asked after finishing his first glass, his voice pitched with a degree of enthusiasm that suggested the success or failure of the entire evening depended on her answer.

"It's like being reunited with an old friend," Kiera said without missing a beat.

"Yes, yes, that is a fantastic image. Yes, like an old friend," he repeated, clearly pleased with the response of this girl who claimed to be his niece.

Until now, Kiera had been cautiously gauging the right moment to broach the subject of her father's disappearance. Sensing that this was as good a moment as the evening was going to let slip, she sat up a bit straighter in her chair and forced her mind into focus.

"Mr. Bardakçı, I've been meaning to tell you something since I arrived tonight," Kiera began. Her uncle's eyebrows arched as he waited for her to continue.

To be continued...