Alper Canıgüz

Excerpt from novel: Sons and Suffering Souls
Translated from the Turkish by Amy Spangler & İdil Aydoğan

To be and not to be

Five is a person’s ripest age; after that, the decay sets in.

I, Alper Kamu, just turned five a few months ago. As my birthday approached I spent most of my time at the window, watching the people outside. They went through life speeding up, slowing down, making all kinds of noises, and looking around. It made me sick to think that I would become one of them one day. Unfortunately though, there was no escape. Time was cruel and I was growing old fast.

The only good thing in my life now was that I didn’t have to go to kindergarten anymore. Better late than never. Actually, for a long time I had done my best to persuade my parents that kindergarten just wasn’t the place for me. Using all rational justifications. But, unfortunately, it was no use. I was therefore forced to go to extreme measures to get them to take me seriously, like kicking and screaming in bed at night, throwing temper tantrums when the school bus came to pick me up, stuff like that. What a total disgrace. It was despicable, really.

Truth is, before actually starting kindergarten, I had no preconceptions, good or bad, about that particular institution. But alas, I got off on the wrong foot. After shaking hands with the headmistress, my teacher, and the other kids at school, I puked. My mom was mortified, but our teacher was very understanding about the matter. She explained to my mom that these things always happen, that it was quite natural for me to be a little nervous on the first day, bla bla bla. If only she hadn’t had her hair up in a weird bun like that, maybe even I would have been convinced.

As they say, a good beginning makes for a good ending. But try as I may, I just couldn’t get the hang of this kindergarten thing. Our teacher would usually start off the day by informing us about silly stuff, like which plants grow in the summer and which foods we eat in the winter. The worst part about it was that the woman was obsessed with participatory learning, and so she constantly expected us to comment on all the deadly boring topics she brought up. I was so afraid she’d ask me a question that I just hung my head the whole time. And then there was the whole singing business. Our repertoire consisted of several pieces composed and written for tiny, educable imbeciles, by the world’s most horrendous musicians and, frankly, my classmates’ enthusiasm far outweighed their musical talent. Because I naturally refused to take part in the ensuing cacophony, at the interludes the teacher would yell out my name, thus, as she saw it, fostering in me a love of the arts. I’d feel so utterly humiliated, I’d just want to crawl into a hole and die. I mean, they expected me, Alper Kamu, ardent fan of Shostakovich, to belt out a rendition of “twinkle twinkle little star.”

Fortunately, thanks to my asocial disposition and the occasional outbreaks of my inner turmoil, my teacher concluded that I must be mentally retarded and finally let me be.

And the two hour mid-day nap, that was absolute torment. They’d assigned me the middle bed of a three-bed bunk. I never got a wink of sleep. I spent five whole months staring back at the gruesome faces that I and I alone was able to pick out in the fiberboard above me. Plus, I was always parched, because they never gave us water before noon so that we wouldn’t wet our beds. While everyone else farted away in their sleep, I passed my time buried alive in that grave, writhing in excruciating agony. When the teacher came in two hours later shaking her rattle, I’d stretch and pretend to wake up.

Next came everyone’s favorite activity of all – playtime. As soon as the door to the playroom opened, the children would descend upon the myriad masses of colorful bricks, balls, cars, and a slew of other toys. While all the other kids cut loose, a few daft girls and I would head over to the handicrafts table. The teacher was trying to teach us, her apathetic students, the art of making necklaces out of old calendars. With Mother’s Day approaching, the handicrafts lesson was made mandatory for the entire class, so that everyone could make necklaces out of old calendars as gifts for their mothers. Anyway, the point is, I was the only one who just couldn’t pull off the art of necklace making. Of course, this came as a surprise to no one. The teacher gave me the sample necklace she had made herself for me to give to my mom (I think she’d had this in mind from the start) but I adamantly refused. The teacher was then compelled to announce this state of affairs to the entire class. “Children, this little boy says he’s not going to take his mom a present.” At that moment, I just wanted to die. And so I grabbed the lousy thing from her hand, to stop her from blabbing on about it. The bitch finally shut up then.

I brought up the water problem with my parents, and so they came to school and had a word with the Headmistress. The Headmistress then ordered for my mid-morning water ration to be increased from half a glass to a full glass. Unfortunately, however, this new regulation only made me feel worse. I’d sink into a spot at the very end of the dining table, next to the wall, unable to bring myself to partake of my privileged double dose of water. I shrank in my seat as the teacher struggled to rescue my glass of water from the eager grasp of my hyperactive classmates. “Take your water now, will you, son.” As if that wasn’t enough, the goddamn idiots had to go and increase my cookie ration as well, for no apparent reason whatsoever. Five cookies for me, three for everyone else. “Take your plate now, will you, son.”

Whatever. And yet there’s one other thing that happened to me in that living hell — it was so awful that, in terms of the damage wrought on my psyche, all the aforementioned appalling incidents were nothing in comparison, trust me. In the corner of the playroom stood the one and only thing in the entire school that was of any interest to me whatsoever: a shiny black grand piano. On Friday afternoons, a rooster-headed moron, who always showed up in the same crappy dress suit, with an entire tub of gel slathered in his hair, came to school and gave piano lessons to eager kids — to those whose families could afford it, that is. Naturally, I would have nothing to do with it. For one, the lessons cost way too much and, secondly, the guy was a lousy piano player. Still, I felt an overwhelming desire to press down on the keys of that magnificent instrument. Somehow I’d become so completely obsessed with the thing that one day I snuck out of bed during nap time and crept into the playroom. I snuggled up to the piano and lifted the lid on the keyboard. I got so excited, I nearly shit my pants. My heart pounded wildly, my hands trembled. I ran my fingers over the keys. I was only going to press one; I didn’t want to make too much noise and wake anyone up. It was either going to be a white key, or a black key. Black. Of course. With the wail of a tortured street dog, my soul resonated: “D###.” A single teardrop ran down my cheek. Out of my left eye. Just then, I heard a patter behind me and turned around. The fatso class president was watching me with a kind of sadistic pleasure unique in children. He wagged one of his fat sausage fingers at me. “I’m gonna tell on you!” What he wanted was for me to try and come up with some pathetic lie, so that he could really put the squeeze on me. I pushed his fat ass aside and dashed to the toilet. Later, the teacher didn’t say anything about it, but I could tell from the looks she gave me that she knew. I swore never to set foot in that place ever again. And so, like I told you, that’s when I started throwing all those temper tantrums and all that stuff at home.

My mother immediately suggested that I be sent to a different kindergarten. She didn’t want me to be at home alone while she and my dad were at work. For some reason, she had this crazy idea that I would down all the pills in the house and kill myself. Who would do such a stupid thing, I mean, when you could just jump out the window? But that’s just the way mothers are, always imagining the worst possible scenarios. Because of evolution. I won’t go into the details. My dad, however, seemed to have grasped the fact that sending me to this or that kindergarten was not going to change anything, and so he insisted that it would be perfectly okay for me to stay at home alone. Who knows, maybe deep down, he was also looking for a way to wriggle out of paying for my school. But I didn’t harbor any hard feelings towards him because of it. I mean, as a state employee, it’s not like the man was made of money. Those disgusting bloodsuckers who demand half his wages for the pleasure of torturing his child are the ones who should be ashamed. Them, and those who deem him worthy of his measly salary. Finally, my dad announced the decision that would put an end to the whole debate and proclaim my salvation: “They can take their kindergarten and shove it up their ass!”

I can honestly say that the subsequent two or three weeks I spent at home without anyone under foot sticking their noses in my business were the best days of my life. I would wake up early in the morning, have breakfast, and then read until lunchtime. Dostoevsky, Oğuz Atay, and some easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy Nietzsche. (Just kidding, Walrus Moustache really knows his shit. It’s amazing how cowardice can make one so creative!) My afternoons I then spent either hanging out with my buddies or under the divan. Time flies when you’re having fun. Then came my birthday - what a catastrophe! I got really pissed off at my parents. There I was, mourning the fact that I had reached the age of five, when they had to go and turn the whole depressing occasion into a cause for celebration. I could understand where they were coming from of course. They thought it would make me happy, but shouldn’t they have given it a little more thought? I must have told them a thousand times over how much I despised such petit bourgeois customs. In the end, the house was packed full of relatives, neighbors, and acquaintances, the last people on earth I wanted to see. They all brought a bunch of crappy presents. The only one I liked was the one from Aunt Gönül, a childhood friend of my mother’s who was wasting her life away filing documents at a military bureau: a Dallas Gold brand pistol that shot plastic bullets at a reasonable speed. The frilly holster, cowboy hat, and sheriff’s badge that came with it were just ludicrous though. Although I knew she didn’t really mean it, my mother had told me I could invite my friends from the neighborhood. But the last thing I wanted was for them to witness this scandalous embarrassment, so I didn’t tell any of them about it.

The only one I could possibly be pleased to see was Alev Abla. She lived next door with her mother. As far as I could tell, after dispatching her husband to the other side, her mother Remziye Hanım had gone completely bonkers. Withered old men would visit her to exorcise her djinns, recite a few incantations to cast away the evil eye, stuff like that. Alev Abla was around twenty. She studied at the Open University. Management. Whatever it was she was going to manage! I felt close to her, probably because she, like me, was an only child. And perhaps also because of the shooting stars in her tormented eyes. Sometimes I’d see her out on their balcony tending their flowers. She’d spread some newspaper and empty a sack of soil onto it. And then, using a bunch of different gardening tools, she’d put the soil in the pots and plant seeds in them. That’s when I’d just happen to go out onto the balcony. We’d start chatting. She liked reading, but the books she read were usually crap. She’d always tell me stupid fairytales like Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, stuff like that that I already knew. I never objected. I enjoyed listening to her tell me stories. At the same time I’d watch her plant the flower seeds with her delicate fingers. Anyway. I loathe romance. I didn’t get too close to her on my birthday, maybe because I was feeling so blue about the meaning and importance of this particular day, or maybe because I was so ashamed of being the clown of this ridiculous event. She only hung around for about half an hour anyway. As if things would have been any different if I’d paid her more attention. After she left I grew enraged and withdrew to a corner and started sulking. I thought I’d done a pretty good job at hiding my feelings towards Alev Abla, but my dad, whom I held responsible for my natural inclinations, had apparently caught on. At one point he came over to me and said, “Well son, next year you’re going go to school like your Alev Abla.” Wise-ass, trying to take advantage of the situation to get me all excited about starting school. As if I were stupid enough not to see that school would tear us apart completely.

So there I was, bored to tears, when my dad’s manager Erdoğan Bey came up to me. He was a squat bonehead with no neck who wore colormatic glasses and had a pencil thin moustache that didn’t suit him at all. My dad hates the guy. My mom, who works in a different division of the same state department as my dad, must have invited him. My mom has always been on good terms with authority. Actually, Mr. Manager wasn’t the type to stoop to attending parties thrown by his inferiors. There’s no way he would have honored us with his presence if it hadn’t been for my cousin, the dean at the university hospital, getting his hypochondriac mother a free check-up. With a smarmy smile, he patted me on the head. “Tell me boy, what do you want to do when you grow up?”
“I’m thinking of cultivating gardens in hell.”
He immediately removed his hand from my head. And then he pissed off. He went and started talking to some other asshole who’d popped out from god knows where. This other asshole’s buddy had been trying to get his foot in the door to snag a government job. But he just couldn’t manage to pass the exam because there were always other people who had the right connections. Of course he made sure to toss the word “favor” into the conversation every now and then. God only knows what the hell Erdoğan Bey expected to get out of it, when he finally struck a pose and asked for the retarded buddy’s name: Tuğrul Tanır. They made me sick. The next day I wasn’t able to drag myself out of bed until after noon. I just couldn’t conjure up the strength to face the world. But then, around one o’clock, the phone wouldn’t stop ringing so I finally had to get up and answer it. It was Hakan, the only kid in the neighborhood my mother didn’t mind me hanging around with. He came from a “good family.”

“Whatcha doin’?” he asked timidly.
“Sleeping. Or rather, I was.”
“What?! I got back from school a whole hour ago.”
“Good for you.” Hakan had started school and was struggling to grasp the niceties of literacy. But because he was a bit of a dumbo, he just didn’t get it. I figured he was going to ask me to come over and tutor him.
“Why don’t you come over?” he said. As expected. “My mother made some wonderful börek. Maybe we’ll do some studying too…”
I was starving and I couldn’t be bothered to set the table and clean up afterwards, so I agreed. Five minutes later I was at his place. His mother greeted me with exaggerated enthusiasm. After all, I was there to tutor her son, right.
“Why don’t you two run along to your room Hakan. I’ll bring in the tea and börek in a bit. Don’t make too much noise, though. I just put the little one to sleep.”
As soon as we walked into the room, Hakan sat down at his desk and started flipping through his lesson book. “Man, this stuff’s hard!”
I looked at what he’d just called “hard.” It was some piece of crap titled Molly and Johnny. Eight pages. At the top of each page was a colorful picture of the dim-witted duo at the lake, on the back of an ass, or whatever. And beneath each picture were five or six lines of text, written in humungous letters. “So what is this stuff?” I asked. Because I had to.
“Our teacher gave us this homework assignment. We’re supposed to break the words down into syllables.”
“Why don’t you ask your mom for help? Should be a piece of cake for her.”
“She doesn’t have time. She’s always taking care of the baby,” he said with a frown. Hakan wasn’t very fond of his three-month-old sister.
“I don’t know how to break words down into syllables,” I said. I really didn’t.
“You liar! So how do you read all those big, thick books then?”
“I know how to read, but I don’t know how to break words down into syllables, alright?”
He was shattered. I could tell that he wanted to protest, but the pathetic little pea brain just couldn’t figure out how to come up with an argument. “Your eyes are all crusty!” he burst out.
I checked. He was right. “I left without washing my face…”
“You should never leave home without washing your face.”
“Why’s that?”
The idiot leapt at the chance to teach me a lesson now. “Because when you’re sleeping at night, the devil comes and licks your face.”
“Where’d you learn that from?”
“My teacher said so,” he boasted.
“Well, your teacher’s got it wrong,” I said. “The devil does come at night, but he doesn’t lick your face, he licks your weenie.”
“No way!” In a reflex his hand went straight to his fly. What a sucker. He believes anything I say.
“Of course, man. Don’t you feel a weird tickling in your thingy at night sometimes?”
“Yeah, yeah… I do get that feeling sometimes.”
“Well there you have it. Now you know: it’s the devil at work. So when that happens, you have to get up and go stick it under freezing cold water.”
Distressed by this new information, he sighed. Clearly the bloke preferred to scratch his itch. At that moment, his mom entered the room, bearing a tray. The börek smelled delicious. She placed a plate in front of me and I dug straight in. “This is wonderful, Aunt Nermin. Thank you.”
“Bon appetite, sweetie. So, how’s it coming along with Hakan’s reading?”
“Just fine,” I answered. “He’s learned all kinds of other useful things at school too.”
I can’t tell you how pleased the woman was to hear this. “Don’t worry. You’ll learn all of it yourself next year.”
“Plus a smart boy like you will learn lots more…”
“I know!” I screamed, banging the knife handle on the table. I admit, it was a bit over the top. But it worked. She shut up and left the room with fearful look in her eyes.
“If I don’t finish my homework, my mom won’t let me out to play,” said Hakan woefully; he still hadn’t touched his börek. “There’s a game against the kids from Leaf Street tonight, you know.”
Hakan was the goalie for the neighborhood football team. And he was pretty good, too. “Give me that book, let’s have a look,” I said. “But I’m telling you again, I don’t know how to do it.”
“Well, I’m sure you’re better at it than I am,” said Hakan happily.
“Alright, but you can’t blame me if it’s not right.” I grabbed a pencil and started chopping up the words at random. It was hilarious, the way Hakan was watching me so intently, even though he had no idea what the hell I was doing. I couldn’t help but laugh. It was the first time I’d laughed that day. I put my arm around his neck and squeezed. “Bro’!”
“What?!” he asked with a stupid smile on his face.
“Nothing. Let’s get to work.”

After I left Hakan’s place, I headed over to Pleasant Green Apartment Building. Music — apparently, though it sounded more like machine gunfire to me — was blaring from apartment number four on the ground floor, as per usual. The renters here were two long-haired guys with earrings who called themselves Ozzy and Osman. Supposedly it was just the two of them, but the place was always full of, to quote my mom, “a bunch of freaky weirdos.” Those guys were always at odds with the neighbors. Supposedly the neighbors’ complaint was the music, but if you ask me, their real problem was that they thought these kids were actually enjoying life. I, however, think they were way off the mark with that one. I’d observed Ozzy and Osman quite often walking down the street, having a cola at the corner shop, stuff like that. They were in a state of constant dialogue, punctuating just about every word with a burst of laughter (usually each laughing at his own jokes, that is). I don’t think they were really trying to understand one another, or understand anything else for that matter. They just kept laughing like a pair of idiots. That’s the way people are when they define themselves not by what they are but what they are not. For them, laughing was a kind of drug, a kind of noise that kept them from hearing the covert silence that was always there. Laughing was their shield, warding off life so they wouldn’t have to face up to it. So, basically what I mean to say is, they both belonged to that “lost and confused” personality type. Frankly, I didn’t hold out much hope for them. They’d spend a few years laughing at a bunch of bullshit, thinking how different they were from everyone else, before embarking on a miserable middle class existence, still holding tightly on to their belief in just how different they “really truly” were.

I found Wimpy Celal and Cemalettin playing marbles in the backyard of the apartment building, just as I had expected. After all, those guys are virtually attached at the hip. You know that phrase “a bag of bones,” well, that’s the kind of kid Celal is. Unhealthy, pale white face, shrill voice, bristly hair. His dad’s an exterminator. What exactly it is he exterminates, I don’t know, but he always rides his motorcycle to and from work. Wimpy is crazy about motorcycles. He’s taken a lot of whacks for fiddling around with the bike. Cemalettin is one of the Pleasant Green Apartment Building custodian’s three hundred and fifty thousand kids. There’s always a damp trail extending from his upper lip to his nostrils. You’d think there was a nest of snails living in there. He lives together with his parents and siblings in a tiny house (converted from a shed) in the corner of the backyard. But the yard is just fabulous. A row of small, contiguous chambers starts from the right-hand side of the entrance and extends all the way around, marking the opposite border. This contraption always adds an extra sense of adventure to our savage war games. The building residents had used the chambers as coal bunkers before natural gas was installed. They were a whopping two meters high. The things we got away with up on those roofs! Another one like it but smaller, made up of four chambers, extended from Cemalettin’s family’s house on the left into the middle of the yard. Reaching the neighboring yard – which was covered in weeds as tall as me in some places, the sort you see at unkempt graves – was a piece of cake: from the top of the coal bunker, all you had to do was climb over the wires on top of the dividing wall, and voilà! But that ceased to be a popular activity with us some time ago, the reason being the strange guy who’d moved in to the dilapidated, three-story wooden house, hyperbolically referred to as “the villa,” in the center of the yard. His name is Ruhan Bey. He’s a grizzled, rough-looking guy in his forties, with a walrus moustache. Wearing what appeared to be a hand-me-down dress suit from a man of considerably larger build, he’d hop into his antique truck with the tarp stretched across the back, departing at the crack of dawn and returning late at night. Half of his windows were covered in newspaper or cardboard in lieu of glass. And none of us had ever seen a guest or anything of the sort go near the place. So, in short, he was one creepy guy and so we’d decided it would be best to keep the hell away from him.

Wimpy Celal and Cemalettin were the neighborhood’s resident bastards. They used to pick on me a lot when my family and I first moved here last year. I really couldn’t have cared less. They thought I was some kind of momma’s boy. And maybe they were right. One day I saw the two of them picking on Ertan, the neighborhood nutcase. They were running circles around him, screaming and shrieking and poking him all over with sticks. I blew my stack when I saw that. “Hey, leave him alone!” I yelled. Wimpy Celal ventured a glance my way. “What’s it to you, dude? You his lawyer or something?” he chirped. I shot back: “I don’t need to take money from someone to speak what I know to be right.” Or something like that. I can be pretty polemical when I have to, you see. Of course this response of mine did nothing but entirely reduce me to the status of poofter in their eyes. Cemalettin walked toward me, swinging his stick towards my ribs. I grabbed him by the arm and threw him straight to the ground, just like that. And then I put the choke on Wimpy Celal. In less than a minute, I had them both squirming at my feet. I’m not sure how I acquired the skill, but I am a damn fine fighter. “Mercy, boys?” I asked, with a knee on each of their backs. “Mercy,” they said, and I retreated. “You better hope I don’t see you messing with Ertan ever again,” I told them. They were looking at me like a couple of sheep. But then as soon as I had turned my back, they pounced on me. Once I’d broken free, I beat the shit out of the sleazeballs again. This time, I twisted their wrists until there were tears streaming down their faces and I made them swear they’d never go fucking around like that again. After that little incident, they started showing me some respect. Now we’re on reasonably good terms, but I know that if they happened to catch me off-guard, they’d go straight for the kill. Obviously, these guys are not trustworthy. And there’s nothing wrong with that – after all, it’s human nature. Plus they’re pretty fun, peppy guys. Sometimes I wonder if they are aware of the fact that they are condemned to be losers in life.

“Geezie pete!” yelled Wimpy Celal, having failed to hit a single of the marbles placed in a row about a half a meter away. As soon as Cemalletin had had his turn, he jumped up and ran towards the marbles, sniffing back his snot along the way; clearly, he was afraid Wimpy Celal would run off with them. I just love these guys. Their relationship is built on an absolute lack of trust. It is perfectly acceptable for either to go fuck the other one over at any moment. No umbrage, no resentment. Certain aspects of their personalities are reminiscent of Nietzsche’s Übermensch.

After striking the marble at the beginning of the row and thus winning them all, Cemalletin swooped to the ground and quickly collected his booty – all two handfuls – his masterful technique enough to make a hawk green with envy. “I’m done playing this crap, dude,” said Wimpy before violently releasing a gob of spit.
Cemalletin didn’t give a rat’s ass. “Whatever.”
Just then, Wimpy noticed me. “What’s up? You playing in the game tonight?”
“Of course,” I answered. I like playing football. The game satisfies my need for physical struggle. And returning home bloody and bruised after a particularly rough game is an especially exquisite pleasure. You feel like a war hero; and you really come to understand which comes first, essence or existence. “I was just coming by to ask if the game was definitely on or not. Hakan may not be able to come though.”
“Who cares if that peewee comes or not,” said Cemalettin. “Wanna play marbles?”
“No,” I said. “I’ve gotta go home. I’ve got work to do. See you this evening.”
“Geezie pete,” Wimpy tweeted after me. “For God’s sake, what the heck kind of work’s a peewee like you got to do?”
“I’m off to save the world,” I said, as I made my departure.

Everything back home was just as I had left it. There was nothing odd about that, of course, but still, I was disappointed. As I wandered through the rooms, the framed photographs on the dresser in my parent’s room caught my eye. Around twenty photos from my mother’s life, moments which she had deemed important. My dad was in two of them, and I was in one of them. I think my mother looked at these photos believing that she could convince herself that she truly existed and experienced things. What delusion! Those photos ripped my heart to pieces. I quickly left the bedroom and headed for the living room. I tried to clear my head by tossing around a tennis ball that I had acquired from someplace that I could no longer recall. But it was no use. With all its might that familiar depression was preparing to attack once again. I considered throwing the ball at a wall plate that my mother was, for some reason, particularly fond of. I definitely need to do less thinking.

At that moment, I remembered my responsibilities. I looked at the clock: three o’clock. I still had enough time. I went straight to my room. I removed the laundry basket from beneath the ottoman and inserted myself into the now vacant space.


Originally published in Turkish as: Ogullar ve Rencide Ruhlar.
by Alper Canıgüz

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