Zachary Karabashliev's "18% Gray"

As promised last week, here’s a bit more information on 18% Gray, one of this year’s Bulgarian Contemporary Novel contest’s co-winners.

18% Gray is a sort of non-linear road novel. In the present, Zack is traveling to the East Coast trying to sell off the huge bag of marijuana that has come into his possession. Parallel to this storyline is a set of flashbacks detailing his obsessive romance with the now disappeared Stella. The plot shifts from present-day California to Eastern Europe in the nineties; it runs through anti-communist student rallies, and continues with the young couple’s exodus to America.

This paragraph from the synopsis also grabbed me:

Driving to New York, equipped with an old Nikon and bunch of expired black and white film rolls, Zack starts photographing an America we rarely see. Faces, roads, buildings, nature—everything caught on his film is raw and genuine. Zack captures America as if noticing it for the first time; as if he has never learned how to take pictures. Zack photographs America the way America no longer is—real.

Here’s an excerpt of the excerpt. The full book will be available to reviewers and booksellers by next summer, and will officially drop in November 2012:

She’s been gone nine mornings.

The blinds in the bedroom are shut tight, but the day still finds a way to get in, and with a roar – the garbage truck. That means it’s Wednesday. That 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, stagger to the living room, and flop down on the couch. The cool leather doesn’t help me fall back to sleep, and the garbage truck rumbles closer. I get up, push aside one of the blinds, a bright ray burns my face. I focus my powers and attempt to dismember the roaring green monster with a gaze. The effort only succeeds in waking me up completely.

I look at the flowers in the vase on the coffee table. Dead freesias in murky water, she left them behind.

I open a kitchen drawer and pull a Toblerone out of the stash of candy. I pick yesterday’s white shirt up off the floor and plug in the iron. I iron with one hand, while breaking off triangles and gobbling them down with the other. I put on the shirt and a blue tie, make instant coffee, slosh some on my sleeve while I fumble for the car keys, throw on a gray suit coat, and slam the door behind me.

Another scorching Southern California day. I gun the Corolla. I make a right onto Jefferson and get on the highway. Five lanes of cars in one direction and five lanes in the other. Exhaust pipes roar, engines rattle, fenders gleam – as if preparing for battle.

At the morning meeting, Scott the manager announces the latest structural changes in the department and showcases data from the new clinical trial. There’s a box of doughnuts on the table.

. . . to monitor the progress of this clinical investigation . . .” Glazed, powdered, sprinkled . . .

. . . since we are still in phase one of the trial . . .” Chocolate frosting, red jimmies, cream filling . . .

. . . and how much attention should be given to each activity . . .” I stir milk in my coffee. I can’t stop talking to her in my head—I can’t stop merely because one of us is not here.

. . . strict adherence to the procedures by the medical personnel.

Stella. I have to stop thinking about her. I will not think about her. I will not think about her. I will do yoga, open my charkas, recite mantras, chant Om, eat rice with my bare hands, grow a beard, do headstands. O-m-m-m-m. I will not think about her. O-m-m-m-my God I’m so tired of thinking about Stella.

Scott finishes his spiel and hands out personal agendas for the upcoming quarter – it’s in his eyes again, that perkiness. He shakes our hands the way only short people do – but he hangs onto mine a bit longer. Then everyone heads to their cubicles while Scott gestures for me to follow him into his dark gray office down the hallway. Office minimalism—a desk, a computer, a personal coffee maker, and a water cooler under a poster of a long boat (kayak? canoe?) powered by a squad of rowers. Below the picture: “Teamwork.” Scott is speaking to me in a concerned voice. He is looking at me with that look. I don’t hear what he’s saying; I just nod and want to puke. That look. I don’t remember how the rest of the day goes. Horrible, I imagine.

On the way back from work, during rush hour at the traffic light on 11th and Broadway, the stream of cars slows down. Somewhere ahead, I notice fluorescent reflective vests holding stop signs and redirecting traffic. I see the white corpse of a semi sprawled on its side in the middle of the road. It’s hot. I try to change lanes at the last second and cleverly take Cedar Street, but don’t make it—the douchebag on my right won’t let me in. Fine, I’ll sit in traffic like everyone else then. I look to my left: a guy around fifty, crow’s feet, dry California tan, is picking his nose and watching a small plane in the sky trailing a giant red banner. I also look up to see what is written in the sky behind the plane and catch myself picking my nose, too. I look at the plane overhead, I look at the man. His left elbow – resting on the rolled down window, his right index finger – up his nose, his hair – gray. That’s how I’m going to look in about twenty years.

Honking from behind jolts me and I press the clutch to shift to first. It suddenly sinks. I press harder, I push and pull the stick to shift into gear, but it won’t move. I watch the gray-haired man pull away. The light is still green, but it won’t be this green forever. I start shoving the stick harder (damn – yellow), I hear the honking grow more impatient behind me. An intolerably hot day (it’s red now) and longer than any other (scarlet red). I feel the rage of those accountants, lawyers, software engineers, waiters, real estate agents, the entire work force on this street focusing on my tiny tan car. Had there been someone to coordinate their thoughts, with a single conspiratorial glance they would have tossed me down by the docks where the bums hang out. Where I belong.

I start scouring the dashboard for the red triangular button; I have no idea where it is. Behind me, more and more of those jerks, safe in their anonymous vehicles, start honking. I see only their expressionless faces in the rearview mirror, but I know that a little bit lower, down where I can’t see, they are laying on their horns. Sweat drips off me. Can’t they see that I’m stuck, that I’m miserable? The more intelligent ones signal left and go around my immobile vehicle. The rest refuse to accept my misfortune. Now I really start sweating and it smells like French onion soup. If they keep pissing me off, I’ll get out of my car, fling open my arms like the statue over Rio, and blow them away with the stench. I’ll annihilate them! They’ll be jumping out of their cars in a panic, hands clamped over mouths and noses, running frantically like in a Godzilla movie. Finally, at the corner of 11th and Broadway, there’ll be only me and countless abandoned vehicles with open, beeping doors. They’ll go peep-peep-peep-peep like chicks. Peep-peep-peep-peep. And I’ll stride down the street like a conqueror and laugh a loud, ominous laugh.

I finally find the hazard light button; I push it and jump out, half-suffocated by my own smell. The air is hot and dry. I make apologetic gestures to those behind me, my shirt soaked with sweat. I loosen my tie, grin guiltily, and shrug (it could happen to anyone), while in my mind I mercilessly rape and murder every single loved one of those fucking slimeballs who now avoid making eye contact with me.

I use a payphone to call a towing company.

Half an hour later a tow truck rumbles up and a Vietnamese guy jumps down. He’ll be towing my car to the body shop. He wants 80 bucks. I ask him who to make the check out to.

He shakes his head, “Cass, cass!”

“_Cass?“ I say. “I don’t have any _cass.” I write a check for 80 dollars and hand it to him.

“No!” The Vietnamese guy insisted. “Cass, cass!”

Cass, my ass!” I say.

“Huh?” He frowns, he doesn’t get it. Well, I don’t get why Stella’s gone either.

“I don’t have any cash.” I say. “No credit card either.” The Vietnamese guy and I negotiate, he decides to accept the check, but now he wants more money. I write a check for a hundred and twenty dollars. Who should I make it out to?

“Howah.” He says.



“Oh, Howard? Okay Howard.” Look at these Asians and the noble names they appropriate! I’ve yet to see one named Bill or Bob. I write “Howard Stern” and hand him the check.

“No! No!” He screams. “No Howard Stern!” and rips up the check. “Howah!”

“Howard what!?” I snap.

He grabs the checkbook and writes the name himself: Hau Ua.

“Oh!” I pat him on the shoulder. “I know lots of Vietnamese guys, Hau. Good people.” Hau stares at me with no expression. “Good people!” I say, “the Vietnamese.”

“I from Laos,” Hau says, gives me a nasty look and turns his back on me. Now they’ll skin me at the garage. Let them. Fuck it.

I spot a taxi and flag it down.

It’s quiet and dark in our house now. I water the plants in the backyard – it’s not their fault she’s gone. The neighbors’ orange cat shows up. “Do you miss Stella?” I ask. He meows, which means of course he does. Stella used to buy him canned food. She insisted that ocean whitefish was his favorite. I find some cans under the sink and open one. I take it out and set it under the easel where her last abandoned painting sits. A sheet spattered with blue paint is covering it. I watch the cat eat for couple of minutes. I gave Stella this easel five years ago as a Christmas present. I lift one corner of the sheet and look at the canvas. I don’t get it. This is the only painting of hers in the house – the rest are either in her studio or in storage – and it’s unfinished. Why don’t I throw it in the trash?

I’m hungry. I turn around and accidentally knock over one of the jars with watery paint and brushes sticking out. It rolls through the grass, leaving an ugly trail of muddy grayish paint. I angrily kick the jar and it shatters.

The only things in the fridge are some rotten vegetables from before she left, and some beer, which I stashed there afterwards. Lately, my life has been divided into before and after she left. The latter is made up of nine days of loneliness. Loneliness that I feel most acutely at dusk. The world sighs with relief after a workday, while I choke up on her absence. Alone like a Sasquatch, I wander through my thoughts, and there’s no shelter, absolutely none.

You need to be alone. To decide what to do with your life.” I can hear her words in the room now. I didn’t say anything then. I just watched CNN and didn’t say a single thing. What was on the news then?

I find half of a dry baguette in the breadbox. I take out a can with a colorful sombrero and an “El Cowboy” label and pour its contents into a small pan to heat it up, stirring it from time to time. The smell of spicy Mexican beans fills the room. She doesn’t like beans. She doesn’t like Mexican spices either. I go pick something to listen to. While I sift through CDs and LPs, I hear a “pf-f-f-f“—the beans are boiling over and spilling onto the burner. I get up and start sponging away the mess before it’s dried up. Suddenly, my wrist sticks to the hot pan. That sizzling sound, the smell of burnt flesh, the pain. Shit, my hand, shit, fuck my stupid hand! Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck! Fuck? All of a sudden, the idea of porn doesn’t seem as pathetic as it has for the last week and a half. I will reward myself with a serene hand job after my spicy bean dinner.

I put a tablecloth on the table. I lay out the silverware on a linen napkin. I take out a jar of hot chili peppers and arrange it on the table. I light a candle. I serve up the bowl of beans in the middle and set two beers next to it. I grab the remote and turn on the stereo. Aria of Salome” from the opera Herodiade. I pump up the volume, like I never did when she was here. I drop pieces of dry baguette into the bowl, stir, and slurp up the hot chunks, rolling them around in my mouth. Beans are an experience. You have to devour them hot and spicy, otherwise there’s no point.
The first part of the aria lasts five minutes and nine seconds. Two minutes in, I see the bottom of the bowl and spend the next three listening with my eyes closed. The telephone rings right at the last note. I don’t pick up. I haven’t picked up the phone since Stella left.

Leave a message.

“Zack, are you there?” It’s the annoying voice of Tony, who’s been calling me three times a day.

“I’ve been calling you three times a day. Where are you, Zack? We need to talk, man. Pick up the phone. Zack?!”

Thirty-three messages blink on the machine. Not one from her. I look around. Every single thing in this house is in its place because she put it there. Every square inch is covered with her fingerprints. I try to get used to the fact that she’s gone.

The porn is lame, pink bodies lurch on the screen for a while, then everything ends in a napkin. I toss it into the trash and get ready for bed. I brush my teeth meticulously and wash my face. I turn the lights off everywhere. I lie down on the right side of the bed. The left side – her side – feels like a wound. I’m suffocating on sadness. I stare at the dark ceiling for a long time, then roll over to where she slept until nine nights ago. I curl into a six-foot long embryo and press my heart with the full weight of my body. The heart is like the neighbors’ cat – it doesn’t get it. It doesn’t understand that she’s gone. The heart is an animal.


1988, Bulgaria


I met her in Varna – the Black Sea town where I was stationed – just before I was discharged from the army. I was on day leave, it was late May, blooming linden trees everywhere. I had read in the newspaper that ancient ruins had been discovered during construction of a mega-department store. The subsequent excavations unearthed the remains of a Roman arena, and a third of downtown had been transformed into an archeological site. It was worth checking out, I thought.

It wasn’t. It was a big hole in the middle of the city filled with bored students brushing stones. Maybe it was my hideous buzz cut or my ravenous stare, still not sure what, but the local girls would cross over to the opposite side of the street. I was tired of wandering around, so I decided to grab a bite to eat. I walked in a café and I saw her. Her lips? No. First her eyes, then her lips. Then her breasts – her round, full breasts stretching the blouse of her uniform. Then the curl of light brown hair hanging down to the dimple on her cheek. And then the dread that whatever I would do was pointless. She was the most beautiful girl in town – there was no way she didn’t belong to some lucky bastard who was counting the minutes until the end of the work day. Miracles don’t happen, I decided, and walked out.

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