18 PERCENT GRAY

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Zahary Karabashliev was born in Varna, Bulgaria in 1968, and writing ever since he was in college. Zahary Karabashliev moved to the United States 11 years ago.

He first stayed in Ohio where he studied photography and then moved to California where he became a professional photographer, studied film producing and playwriting, and kept writing both fiction and for the stage. His play Sunday Evening was staged in Los Angeles and is now being produced in Sofia. His latest play Reverb was awarded the Grand Award for Contemporary Drama at the International Theatre Festival in Shumen. Karabashliev's debut novel 18 Percent Gray was published in Bulgaria by CIELA in June 2008.

The Elizabeth Kostova Foundation and Vagabond, Bulgaria's English Monthly cooperate in order to enrich the English language with translations of contemporary Bulgarian writers. Through 2008 we will give you the chance to read the work of a dozen young and sometimes not-so-young Bulgarian writers that the EKF considers original, refreshing and valuable. Some of them will be translated in English for the first time. The EKF has decided to make the selection of authors' work and to ensure they get first-class English translation, and we at Vagabond are only too happy to get them published in a quality magazine.

Enjoy our fiction pages!
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She's been gone for nine mornings.

The blinds in the bedroom are completely drawn, but the day still finds a way to penetrate with the roar of the garbage truck. This means it's Wednesday. This means it's eight fifteen. Is there a noisier noise than the noise of a garbage truck at eight fifteen?

I crawl out of bed, I move to the living room and crash on the couch. The cool leather doesn't help me to go back to sleep, and the garbage truck gets closer. I stand up, adjust one of the blinds and a bright ray burns my face. I gather all my strength and attempt to dismember the green, roaring monster with a gaze. This effort only wakes me even further.

I look at the flowers in the vase on the glass side table. Dead freesias in murky water, left behind by her. I open the rightmost drawer in the kitchen and pull out a Toblerone. I pick up a dirty shirt from the floor, plug in the iron, and as I iron with one hand, I break off and shove little triangles in my mouth, then I put the shirt on, put a tie on, make instant coffee, drip some on my sleeve while I look for the keys, throw on a gray coat and slam the door behind me.

Outside is another glittering southern California day. I turn the Toyota's engine on. I take the ramp on Jefferson to the highway.

Five lanes of vehicles going one direction and five coming from the opposite. Traffic. Exhausts roaring, engines trembling and fenders shining – as if preparing for battle.

At work I think about her, I can't stop talking to her in my head – this somehow doesn't stop only because one of us is not here. Can I stop? I try. OK, from here on out I will not think about her. I will not think about her. I will not think about her. I will not think about her. I will not.

I will do yoga, I will open my chakras, I will repeat OHHMMMM until I clear my mind, I will eat rice with my hands, I will grow a beard, I will do headstands.

Oooohmm. Oooiiihhhhmmmm tired of thinking about her.

Oooiiihhhhmmmmmm tired of thinking about her.

Iiiiiiihhhmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm tired of thinking about her.

At the morning meeting, Scott the manager announces the latest structural changes in the department, there is a box of donuts on the table, there is orange juice and steaming coffee… Clinical trial... – Why is the AC so cold in here? – in its next phase… – Ohhmm– after we define certain… – Why is the coffee so weak and sour? – everybody needs to note the new protocol… – Ohhmm… – IRF 1574… in the clinical centers… – Ohhmm…– I want everyone to review the IRB documentation, before they finish – What am I doing here? – for the strict adherence to the procedures by the treating physician… Who are these people? – Scott the manager hands out personal agendas to everyone for the upcoming quarter, his eyes filled with that liveliness, that liveliness, he energetically shakes our hands, the way only short people do, but mine he holds longer. Where am I?

Afterwards everyone heads to their light gray cubicles, while Scott gestures for me to follow him into his light gray office. Office minimalism – desk, monitor, personal coffee maker and a water cooler equipped with a poster of a long kayak (canoe?), driven by a row of rowers.

Underneath the photograph "Teamwork."

Scott the manager is talking with a concerned voice. He is looking at me with that look. I don't hear what he is saying; I just nod, and want to vomit. That look. I don't remember how the rest of the day plays out. Horrible, I suppose...............................................................
***




I park the car in front of McDonald's at the US side – I have no business driving in Mexico. I cross the border with the Third world on foot. In Tijuana the taxi drivers chat in front of their cars, eat sunflower seeds, and look at the passers by just like cabbies do anywhere in the world.

"Holla," I greet them.

"Holla," answer the first ones in the row. I get in.
Where am I going? Boulevard Revolución.

We take off. Mexican rap accompanied by accordion plays in the cab. Next to the air freshener tree, a gilded plastic Jesus swings in the air. We stop before the end of the song. I pay and get out. I inhale deeply. Revolución blasts with the speakers of every night club, smells with the street grills, looks at me hungrily with the eyes of every merchant of whatever, and wants my money with every beggar's hand. Something is happening every single second everywhere around me.On the sidewalk a mariachi family sings their heads off playing large ill-tuned guitars. No one notices them. Under the street lamp a dog stretches out a piece of chewing gum. From the closest disco club named "Spiderman" a Spiderman hangs from a rope and sways over the heads of the crowd from side to side.

On the sidewalk across from me is a donkey painted in black and white stripes like a zebra. The "zebra" is saddled in a carriage colorful as a Christmas tree. "$5 photo. Viva Mexico". People, people, people… that's why I'm here- people- people- people- people-people-people…The energy of Tijuana pulsates in every aorta south of the border, lives in every germ. This very energy sucks me out of our empty house on the canyon, away from California going to work in the morning.

I get in the first bar. The bartender, thank god, speaks English. I ask if he could make martini.

"Sí Señor."

"You got olives?"

"Sí Señor."

"You can make dirty martini?"

"Sí Señor."

"Now, the señor here wants a dirty martini with three olives, okay?"

"Sí Señor."

Three martinis later the senor looks around. If I'd done this before I sat down – I think to my self – I'd probably wouldn't have stayed. What kind of a place is this? Dirty, dark, smells like crap. In one corner is a wooden box with a TV set in it and the never-ending soccer game on. Several customers in cowboy hats watch the box and drink beer in green bottles. On every commercial break though, the hats turn and look in my direction. I pay and get out.

Outside, Tijuana enfolds me in its sweaty, open bosom. Noisy merchants pull me left and right to get me into their stuffy little shops. I dive in another bar. This time I look at the crowd carefully. In the corner is a wooden box with a TV set playing a soccer game. The men are in cowboy hats, drinking beer watching the game. The commercials begin, the hats turn toward me. I stay. Back to square one. On my way out, the stairs seem funnier.

Outside the Mexican night is hot and pulsating. I need a panocha now, at this moment! PaNoChA! A fat neck with a tattoo pulls me up some illuminated stairs. Whorehouse? No. I am dragged into a night club. The music booms Latin-electro. The lights change with every beat, the girls under them too. It's full with girls. The waitress shoves her huge melons under my drunk head. What do I want to drink?
"Martini!," I yell.

She brings a margarita.

I'll drink margarita then.




The dancing floor is packed. The crowd – American military, Mexican pimps, bleached hookers, drug dealers and other losers like me. While normal people north of the border rest before the work day, Tijuana here is wide awake. Maybe an hour later I realise that if I had made a mistake so far tonight, its name is margarita. I get dizzy with the lights, bodies, mirrors, boobs, sweat, glasses, tables, chairs. In the bathroom, an old guy in a bow tie and pencil mustache hands out toilet paper for money. I search in my pockets, take out crumpled dollar notes, drop them in his plate, stagger, find the sink, splash some water over my face. In the spattered mirror I see a guy with a gray face frowning at me. I frown back. His wife had left him. Booo-hoooo!!! Ua-wa-wa! If I were her – I say – I'd leave you too. I go out of the john and the busty waitress greets me with a new margarita. But I haven't ordered a new one. I haven't.

"Sí," say the boobs.

"Sí, sí, but no!"

"Sí, sí, sí Señor!," insist the boobs.

I haven't ordered anything.

The boobs get angry and turn around. What the hell! – the boobs talk to the bouncer. I get some money out, chase her. The Mexicans understand English when they want to. I pay without making a scene. I drink up the stale margarita like a shot and push the glass in my pocket – I'll nick it, cause they are blackmailing me! They treat me like a regular gringo. I might be a boracho, but I wasn't born yesterday. And, no, I'm not a gringo! Suddenly, the whole world spins like crazy before my eyes, oops, I'm gonna die here. I stagger down the stairs, grabbing the railing with all my might and park next to the tattooed neck. God, I'll die here. I attempt a hug with the bouncer as I stammer panocha. I gotta have a panocha before I die. I want panocha!

The fat neck grins.
"Panocha, sí, sí." Makes that gesture that all of us idiots make – "Fucky, fucky, huh Señor."

"Fucky, fucky, yes."

"Fucky, fucky?"

Sure, find me a panocha before I perish! I need panocha.

He points to a guy at the other side of the street; I can't quite make him out. I start at that direction. The sidewalk however suddenly ends – I trip over and hop on the pavement, barely keeping my balance. Out of nowhere, a little hunchback in a white sombrero appears and pulls me aside. …donkey show, donkey show, donkey show…

I have no idea what's going on. To my right, a navy smooches this slut pulling her g-string, she smiles at me over his shoulder. To my left a guy with no legs leans to the wall stretching out his hand – wants dolla.

A five-year-old scruffy girl licks a snot from her lip, stretching out a plastic cup – wants dolla. An Indian with a baby on her breast stretches a plastic cup – wants dolla.One-eyed grandma holds a plastic cup too – wants dolla. Dolla-dolla-dolla-dolla – every one wants dolla.

All of a sudden something swings over my head, I duck in the last second to avoid the clash as I manage to make out Spiderman.

"Donkey show, donkey show, donkey show" – the hunchback with the white sombrero moves his ass – "fucky, fucky."

I don't understand.

"Donkey fucky señorita."

"A-ha!" – a spectacle with a donkey and a naked lady all of a sudden seems appropriate.

I walk after him.

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