ANDREI WALKS THE TIGHTROPE
“Ladies! And! Gentlemen!” Andrei’s voice is deep and booming. He affects a caricature of his formerly thick Ukrainian accent. “Can I have! Your attention! Please!”
Andrei stands with his arms in the air, beckoning the groups of tourists who amble about the plaza. It is April. The crowds have been thinning out. The days are getting longer and hotter. But it’s not yet too hot, and hurricane season is still over a month away. Andrei can still draw an audience.
“Does anyone have a lighter?” Andrei yells into the crowd. He is holding a gas can in one hand, three juggling torches in the other. An audience begins to congeal around his area. Andrei pours gasoline over the charred tips of the metal torches.
“I do,” a young man in a windbreaker and mirrored sunglasses shouts. He is standing with a group of other young men, similarly dressed, pink-faced from a day on the water.
“Come here,” Andrei commands. The young man obliges. “Light it.” The young man produces a silver Zippo, sparks the flint, and holds the lighter out to Andrei. Andrei pauses for a moment, sets down the gas can and torches, pulls out a red and white pack of Marlboros from his pocket and deftly flicks a cigarette into his mouth. He leans in and lights one against the young man’s lambent flame. He takes a long drag on the cigarette, pauses for a moment, then exhales deeply. Looking out at the now sizable crowd he asks, “At what are you looking?”
Andrei is a tightrope walker. Every night a crowd of tourists gathers at Mallory Square to watch the sun slowly sink into the calm blue waters of the Gulf. A performer rides a unicycle while a busker strums a guitar. One artist draws caricatures with felt-tipped markers, another renders tropical scenes with watercolors on postcard-sized canvases. A woman in a purple turban reads palms.
Andrei’s tightrope is stretched out before a thin blue horizon and a descending sun that grows red, distorting as it moves toward twilight. Andrei removes three racquetballs from his pocket, begins to juggle them. His gangly teenaged assistant, Dima, stands off to the side, tosses him more, one by one by one, until Andrei is juggling an impossible numbers of balls.
Andrei realizes that this performance is at once a metaphor and a reality. Aside from the hours, this is what he likes most about his job. Before moving to Key West, Andrei had spent several years pursuing a PhD in Russian Literature at a prestigious university. He knows about these things: He understands the power of metaphor and allegory; he picks up on motif; he catches each double entendre. He appreciates that his life has fallen into a rhythm of symbols and signs that are easy to unpack. He enjoys being part of a performance, an act.
And there is a poetry in this place. The overseas highway—a thin strip of road that traverses bridges and islands—is like a rope that dangles off the continent. As one drives south down the archipelago, the mile markers beside the road slowly count down. Key West—mile marker zero—is the literal end of the line, an ultimate boon or the doorstep to the underworld.
Andrei’s life is bisected by a rope: daytime; tightrope; nighttime. After all these years, he has finally found a rhythm. A balance.
Usually he keeps the balls in the air, but sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes they’re thrown at him too quickly in succession. Sometimes everything comes falling down at once. These situations, Andrei has learned, are unavoidable. It’s impossible to account for every variable, futile even. What’s more useful, is to learn to improvise, to roll with the punches. “All part of the show,” he will say. “It’s all part of the show.”
It’s like a normal hospital, but everything is smaller and more colorful. Even the nurses seem younger, more attractive, in a better mood. Some of the doctors wear scrubs printed with teddy bears under their white coats. It’s like a normal hospital, but there’s life—or at least the life here is well-lighted and displayed, like precious jewelry in a glass case.
There is Mikhail. Poor little Mikhail, bald like a grandpa or great-grandpa, sitting in his child-sized recliner that sits in a row of other child-sized recliners with other little people sitting in them. A whole line of little baldies connected to plastic tubes that hang from plastic bags that hang from gleaming steel poles. Child-sized chemo courses quietly through child-sized veins.
Sometimes it’s child-sized radiation. Radiation. Can you believe it? Radiation!? Wasn’t it radiation that caused all of this? Or was it? Andrei lies in bed next to his wife, dreams he’s surrounded by beautiful naked bodies. Dancing, dancing, dancing, and one of them says, ooooh, what is this? Looking down at his body in the dream, his feet look like feet, legs like legs, but where his cock ought to be there’s a Geiger counter, the leaden probe becoming erect, the meter bearing hard into the red as the clicks speed into a whine. . . . . . . .....
. . . When Andrei wakes, his wife is sleeping soundly beside him, and he has come in his shorts. Warm water on a washcloth and a clean pair of drawers. Into the kitchen for a taste of bourbon. Bookers. Cask strength. The bottle comes in a wooden box. Like a little coffin. The front panel is glass like the casket in Lenin’s mausoleum. Andrei drinks a lot of bourbon these days. He feigns connoisseurship, mimes a deep and rare delight to mask the fact that all he really needs is the blurriness and the burn. The amber liquid smells of smoke and burnt sugar, a faint note of cloves or cracked pepper. But all that matters is that it feels hot on the back of the throat.
Andrei takes the drink into Mikhail’s room. He sits beside the small bed on the floor, leans against the wall and watches his son sleep, that little bald head aglow in the warm amber of the Pokémon night light. Andrei takes a sip and feels the liquor slide down his throat. He imagines his mouth as an IV bag, his esophagus as a generous drip chamber. His mind wanders back to the dream. He pictures his groin glowing with radiation like a night light in an otherwise dark room. In his mind, it was his seed that had done this to the boy. It was his DNA that was mangled and deformed, his disease like a stowaway rat, carried nether across the ocean. And though the doctors dismiss this theory altogether, Andrei can’t help but believe it’s true.