Vanya, Vanya, Featherbrain

Anthony Martin

A city worker severed a main gas line with a backhoe this morning and if someone lights a match the whole neighborhood will be vaporized in a ball of flame. Vanya is sure of it. And so many smokers in this borough! He goes to the deli on the corner to warn Bruno.

“No, no, Maria,” he pleads to Bruno’s youngest daughter. “You must understand. There is open line, leak gas. Cannot you smell?” He puts his fingers to his nose. “Cannot you smell?”

“A fireman has already been by, Vanya.” It’s slow before lunch and she’s buffing her newly polished nails. “He said they think it’s a small leak and there’s no reason for concern.”

This only adds to Vanya’s anxiety. He’s already running the back of the fingers of his right hand—always the right hand—up from mid-breast to his right clavicle, up and up and over and over again, each time in the same spot, and at Maria’s words begins scratching a spot atop his head with his left hand in a similarly repetitive fashion.

“No, no! They block off India Street. Very dangerous thing. I must talk to Bruno. Where Bruno?”

Maria crosses her arms now as her older sister Michelle steps into the register pool to prepare for her shift. Vanya’s hands are still moving at a steady pace as he waits for an answer.

“What’s he blathering about this time?” she asks Maria as she counts the cash.

“The gas thing,” says Michelle. “Thinks the whole neighborhood is gonna go up.”

“The leak? They have it under control I thought. Dammit. I’m short fives again. What the hell is the m—” Michelle stops and turns to face Vanya. “Hey. What’s up with you, anyway? Always in here blabbing about this or that, asking papa for bread. We have work to do. This isn’t a shelter. Now go on! Get!” She steps out from behind the counter—“shoo!”—and shuffles Vanya past the imported prosciuttos and parmesans and into the street. “Jesus,” she says to Maria as she re-enters the shop. “You catch a whiff of him?”

“And those chin whiskers,” mutters Maria, fixated again on her nail polish. “It’s sad, really.”

Outside, the smell of gas is growing stronger, another fire engine goes wailing by, and Vanya has already wiped the tears from his dirty cheeks and started off toward Joseph the pawnbroker.

What’s left of the morning overcast is casting shadows on the sidewalk as Vanya makes his way. It’s quite warm now as the sun breaks through and hints toward the noon position, and our hero has removed his blue hooded sweatshirt and tied it around the waistline of his tattered cargo shorts. On the other side of the intersection, a small crowd has gathered to look down Staid Street, which has been blocked off and is dotted now with the canvas suits of the fire department and yellow hardhats of the city’s contractors and crew. A siren sounds somewhere in the wilderness of apartment buildings and office high-rises clustered on the horizon of the neighborhood. No one takes notice of the bedraggled Vanya, dragging the heels of his sneakers as he walks. The smell of gas has him in a near frenzy, and so Vanya too notices very little but Joseph’s storefront now immediately before him.

“Vinnie boy!” says Joseph from behind the counter as Vanya comes in. “What you got for me today?”

“Dis leak, Joe. You know of leak, yes?”

“Yeah sure, heard the sirens. No one’s been by yet. So watcha got for me buddy?”

“No Joe. N-nothing—”

“Just as well. Slow day, shit.” He rubs his eyes. “Hey, come around back and we can give that Sega Genesis you brought in last week a whirl. I think I’ve got a stack of cartridges. Where’d you find that old thing anyway?”

“Joe…” Vanya is retreating into himself and begins scratching his head with his left hand, same rhythm as his already busy right. “But dis leak, Joe.”

“Yeah, Vinnie.” He’s looking down at his mobile phone. “I heard you.”

“We has to get everyone—”

The bell on the door jingles and Vanya withdraws a step from the sound. A mustachioed city contractor steps in, removes his brimmed yellow hardhat and tucks it beneath his arm as he approaches the counter.

“Can I help you, sir?”

The contractor is silent as he regards Vanya and all his moving parts.


“Right,” says the contractor quizzically, finally looking away from Vanya. “One of my guys did a real job on a neighborhood mainline this morning. You can probably smell it.”

“Well, I mean—”

“Joe,” whispers Vanya from beneath the shadow of his bowed head. “Joe!”

“I mean I heard something about it,” continues Joseph, watching Vanya from the corner of his eye.

“Well we think we’ve got it contained, but just as a precaution we’re asking that you power down and remain indoors until we get the all clear.”

“Bah!” exclaims Vanya now, much to the surprise of Joseph and the mustachioed contractor. “Ah!” he grunts, and sets off to pacing about the room, both hands moving at a feverish pace now, up and up and back and forth. “Ah!”

“Really,” continues the contractor, unsure what to make of Vanya’s outburst, “it’s no danger. This is only a temporary precaution.”

“Bah!” shouts Vanya again, hands at his sides now and moving right up into the contractor’s chin. “Bah! Bah!”

Startled, the man shoves Vanya, who loses his balance and falls to the carpeted floor.

“Hey!” protests Joseph, and moves to give Vanya a hand. But he is already up, shouts, “Bah!” once more as he gathers himself and, hands back to their respective places on his chest and head, rushes for the door.

Fernanda will understand, he thinks as he flees the shop. Bright sunshine. Gas from the ruptured line. The receding sound of Joseph cursing the city man.

Fernanda at the café will understand.

Who knows what Maria and Michelle would say now if they saw the scene unfolding before Vanya in the street. Or Joseph and that mustachioed contractor. Police cars pulling up to cordon off more thoroughfares. Shop owners out on the sidewalks talking to passersby. Everyone facing the unseen epicenter of all the commotion with a searching look in their disbelieving eyes. And gas. The unmistakable, sulfurous smell of leaking gas, like cracked eggs rotting in the bottom of a back-alley trash bin. Vanya picks up the pace of his hunched over shuffle, all but running as he turns down a side street and quickly covers the three empty blocks between him and the café.

Inside, all the tables and comfortable reading chairs are empty. Fernanda, with her hair in a bun and her black polo t-shirt powdered from preparing the morning’s sweets, is behind the counter, leaning on her elbows, eyes up on the television in the far corner. When she sees Vanya, she stands up and snaps her fingers at the barista. “Hey. One mango gelato, por favor.”

“Hi, Fernanda. Hi,” says Vanya. He is visibly agitated and moving about.

“Hello, love. And how is my angel today?”

“Oh,” says Vanya. He is trembling and his right hand is strumming its song again, up and up and up and up. “Oh, I…”

“What is it, my love?” asks Fernanda. The barista walks up with the gelato and offers it to Vanya. “How about some ice cream?”

“Gas!” shouts Vanya, and dashes the gelato to the floor. The paroxysm sends the barista retreating behind the counter, though without fear, as she’s dealt with Vanya before. He begins sobbing, almost in unison with the low wail of an ambulance passing by the café window and rushing off in the direction from which Vanya just came. The barista rushes past them and into the street to satisfy her curiosity.

“The gas,” repeats Fernanda, seeking his eyes. She knows not to touch him.

“Da gas,” cries Vanya through his tears. “Da gas. It burn. It burn!”

“Oh Vanya,” says Fernanda, and looks at that familiar spot under his clavicle where she knows the skin is without pigment, a pale lonely island bordered on all its jagged sides by patches of faded red inflammation—unsavory reminders of what used to be. The same on his head and other places she’s still never seen.

“Your boo-boos, my love? Is it your boo-boos?” Vanya drops his hands and falls into her embrace, really letting it go now, his arms wrapped around her tightly.

“Okay sweetie, okay,” she says, and sees the aproned barista in the street looking off in the direction of the ambulance. “No more boo-boo.” The girl turns to Fernanda and shrugs. I dunno. Vanya’s crying soon abates and his breathing steadies. Fernanda strokes his thin, dandruffed hair. “That’s it,” she whispers.

It’s quiet in the café now. She begins to hum. And by the time the energy of the boom reaches her and she looks up, sees the barista struggling to her feet with terrible carmine streaks running down from her ears, sees the thin crack now bisecting the plate glass window in front of the shop, she’s midway through the tune and Vanya is fast asleep, invulnerable to the cacophony of car alarms now competing with each other in the street.

Author Portrait

Anthony Martin (@pen_tight) can be found in Pea River JournalSquawk BackLunch TicketFlyleaf JournalQuiddity, and The Austin Review. Up the Nung River in search of Colonel Kurtz. Always getting off the boat.


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