The Solution Woman by Kenan Orhan
Reading Kenan Orhan’s “The Solution Woman” is an immersive experience. We’re treated to rich character development in protagonist Gökçe, and to an equally rich setting as we see Ankara through her eyes. As Orhan explores in his Author’s Note, this story draws on Turkish influence—it wouldn’t work as effectively if plucked from Turkey and placed somewhere else. The setting is a critical element.
Orhan’s choice of present tense is important to the narrative flow in this story. It lends immediacy and urgency against its geopolitical context, but it also engenders a lovely sense of surprise for readers as we chart Gökçe’s journey in now time. Her changing relationship with Dog is particularly resonant; coupled with delightful language at the sentence level, it brings a subtle humor that balances this story and allows the reader to stay immersed in the storytelling: “If all of Gökçe’s life amounts to nothing else, if her meals continue alone, if her bedroom walls are never marred by the laughter of her own children, then she at least can claim she’s trained Dog very well to drool upon command.” Take some time with Gökçe and Dog, and Orhan’s Ankara. —CRAFT
Please save some time for Orhan’s story, “Mule Brigade,” the second place winner of our 2018 CRAFT Short Fiction Prize, judged by Jim Shepard
Gökçe watches her younger brother stride up the street to her flower shop in his only suit coat, carrying a borrowed briefcase. The coat does not have holes yet, but the hem of the sleeve has come undone, and the inside lining sticks out from overuse. The left arm is longer than the right. The suit pants haven’t been pleated in years. No tie came with it, so no tie has ever been worn with it. It was made by the old woman who’d lived in the apartment above Gökçe’s family for thirty-two years, back before she died, back even before Gökçe’s father decided to fill his truck bed with the insides of their home and move to Istanbul (they’d made it seven blocks when he changed his mind).
Gökçe watches Levent shoo away the growling dog at the front step and escape into her flower shop.
“You’re terrible, greeting your brother like this.”
“It’s not my dog. It’s a curse from God.”
The dog, with its matted fur and green-rooted teeth, barks and howls at the slight tremors of Gökçe’s tulips in the shop window. She’s chased the dog off with a spray bottle, she’s thrown discarded rose stems, she’s called the municipal officials, and still the mutt, with its patchy coat and concave belly, barks incessantly at her flower shop. She blames it for the decline in sales, but only because she refuses to believe the men of Ankara have given up extramarital affairs, or that Turkish mothers have quit their games of guilt when the most insignificant of birthdays pass unnoticed by their adult children.
In Ankara, the feral dogs roam in droves, benign, down alleyways and rail lines. They congregate for ablution and alms from cabbies at their taxi-hut pavilions, and it has always been such; the packs move as rivers through the city, surging with barks and growls.
“He’s scorning you for the way you run things,” Levent says pointing at the dog. He puts a laugh at the end of it to make sure Gökçe doesn’t mistake it for the criticism it is.
“He’s punishing me for my gullibility,” she says. “What businessman are you impersonating today?”
“Mother would drown you in the river for the way you talk to me.”
“Don’t be a donkey’s ass,” she says. “Cut these stems.” She points to a pile of tulips that need trimming for bouquets. She spits on the shears and gives them to Levent. She arranges a few shoots of violets into a bouquet of pink and red roses.
“Abla, you’re too kind to condescend to me.”
She expects him to remind her he’s a grown man, but behind every grown man, there’s undoubtedly a grown woman doing his dishes.
“Gökçe, Gökçe, Gökçesu, running amok through the riverbeds. Best thing she’s ever done is flush the shit from the street gutters.”
“Levent, Levent,” she sings back. “Believed the crow and perched on a branch. He spread his legs and flapped his arms but he couldn’t fly.”
“We’re no good at these anymore,” he says.
“Don’t stop cutting the tulips.”
“You know, if I’m going to be your employee, we ought to discuss my wage.”
Though teased for slow reading and poor hygiene, Levent has never been accused of lacking wits, and more certainly he’s never been accused of having shame.
“We don’t discuss finances in front of customers,” Gökçe says. “Anyone could come in at any moment, and how would they like walking in on a money quarrel?”
“Not a soul has visited you in three days.”
“I was closed on Monday, so that doesn’t count.”
“Gökçe,” he says.
They stand at the countertop—a menagerie of tulips, violets, roses, lilies, orchids, baby’s breath—pruning and trimming absentmindedly until the stems are little more than worthless stubs. They wrap the warped bouquets into newspaper-cones. She uses the ones with Erdoğan on the front page for the ugly flowers, or the flowers that smell rotten.
“Gökçe, I need some money.”
She ruins the violets, shredding them to ribbons.
“It’s not a lot, maybe 2,000 lira.”
“What scam is this one?” she asks.
“No scam,” he says.
“I don’t have 2,000 lira.” She tosses her hands up over her head, as if to show she’s searched even the attic for a few coins. “I don’t have twenty lira.”
“Mom would have helped me,” Levent says.
But it was their mother who’d squandered what money they had. It was their mother who had entrusted the shop to Gökçe over her brother. It was their mother who had a daughter first and then a son so that the daughter would feel always protective, somehow responsible.
The dog sidles back up the path from the sidewalk, curling into a ball under the shade of the shop awning. Soon it will yawn that squeaky, peeling yawn that puts in mind the grating of engine parts.
Gökçe throws her shears. They chatter across the countertop. “Pitch me,” she says. “Pitch me like I was one of your marks.”
“It’s not a grift, Gökçe. I’m taking classes now. I’m enrolled at Bilkent.”
She laughs, wary of the confusion on her brother’s face, knowing how frequently he wears such disguises. “What are the classes?”
“What classes are you in?” she asks.
Levent sets his cutters and the flowers down, and turns to face his sister like he’s trying to speak through his eyes.
“Do better than this, liar,” she says.
Outside, the dog springs to its feet, riled by a passing squirrel or a pigeon. It perks its ears toward sounds hither and thither. It walks itself in a circle and presses its nose against the door, leaving prints and smears up and down the glass that Gökçe will have to clean for the fourth time today.
“Cut it out,” he says. “I’m not playing a game with you.”
“Then leave, you good-for-nothing.” She doesn’t hesitate because she’s seen this act since Levent convinced her to jump from the balcony of their parents’ first apartment in an attempt to fly to the sun.
“It’s oil classes,” he says reaching his hand out to her like he’s got a little nugget of proof to show her.
“Painting,” he says.
“Ha! Drilling is too sensible for you?”
Levent pauses. He knows how to work the silences, the gaps between words better than any poet—Gökçe has seen it one thousand a one times. He turns his whole body back to the task of trimming flower stems.
The dog presses its muzzle against the glass and licks, licks, until the bottom half of the door is fogged over. Then it scratches at the doorjamb, letting out small yelps, jumping onto a front foot and then the other.
“You’re colorblind,” she reminds him, trying to chip away his façade. “What do you know of art?”
“Ah, what do you know of anything, least of all taste. Maybe there is no money for you to lend, but it’s not Mom’s fault. It’s your bad luck, it’s your bad manners, it’s your bad business.”
“You wouldn’t know which end of a brush to paint with,” Gökçe tells him.
“It would be lauded as avant-garde if I used the other side!”
“They’d institutionalize you,” she says.
The dog outside looks back and forth between Gökçe and Levent. Bark, bark, bark, the dog is barking up a storm now. Someone in the neighborhood shouts for it to shut up; they shout at Gökçe to do something about the dog.
“And what do you do? Sit around all day playing these games of self-pity? At least I try. No one but me even cares you exist.”
She smacks him with a rolled-up newspaper. “Who has more experience with self-pity than you? We can’t all be crying assholes in need of hemorrhoid cream.”
Levent picks up a vase and crashes it into the tiles at his feet because Gökçe’s laughing, because she says that they both complain about the other’s whining. He kicks about the pieces until they become dust, and then he kicks about the dust, and then he takes his briefcase and leaves. The dog growls at him on the way out until Levent clocks it in the nose with his borrowed briefcase she knows is full of bad checks, smuggled cigarettes, and a fake Byzantine icon.
Perhaps because she hasn’t had any chocolate today as she usually does, or perhaps because there isn’t a shred of proof outside this flower shop that she exists, Gökçe’s attention wanders, and she overwaters the hydrangeas until water spills over the pot and down her socks. She jumps and knocks over the flowerpot, spills the water can trying to catch the flowerpot, and soils her dress scooping handfuls of mud back into a fractured pot. Not in shock or concern does the dog on her doorstep bark, but with a lackadaisical intent of spite.
“Stop fucking barking,” she screams at the dog. But she doesn’t move. Her whole life is a testament to the truth in Levent’s accusations of insignificance. She finds solace in the knowledge that he matters little more than she does, doing nothing of value, cheating tourists out of spare change with his stories of sick grandmothers, destitute children hanging from his wife’s breasts back in their shack, once even pretending to be a wandering Sufi to a group of Brits.
Piercing like the pings of a copper kettle, the dog barks and barks and barks. Gökçe throws open the door of the flower shop, trying to catch the side of the dog’s head. But they partake in this ritual too frequently, and it jumps away. “I’ll kill you,” she yells at it as it dashes down the street to Altınpark.
She leaves the mess. It’s been a long day of waiting for customers, and she hasn’t been to the market to buy grape leaves yet, but she thinks she could sleep.
In the night, around the first time Gökçe gets up to pee, a breath of malice whispers into her heart. She lumbers down the stairs of her apartment into the back of the flower shop and opens her laptop. Outside, the yellow lights of old streetlamps boom in competing spheres, painting the road, and the shop front, and the windows, and the cars and scooters, and the trees and shrubs, and the sigh of nighttime in dingy Venn diagrams. The tile is cold without slippers, and she rubs her goose bumps away while her laptop loads.
She types “famous assassinations” in the search bar. At first it shows page after page of Americans, then Archduke Franz Ferdinand, then a Wikipedia article about the briefcase-bombing of Tsar Alexander II. Click, click, click. In an article about IEDs, someone in the comments section mentions how in the Second World War, Soviet engineers trained herding dogs to run at enemy tanks. Gökçe checks it on Wikipedia. The Soviets spent a few weeks giving the dogs choice cuts of meat for running under their T-34s on command, then they strapped kilograms of high explosives to their war dogs and let them loose. More often than not, the dogs, accustomed to Soviet T-34s instead of the German Panzers, ran right under their owner’s tanks, exploding them both.
Gökçe takes the pan off the heat and pokes the chicken around to keep it from sticking. She doesn’t add any spices or anything, in case that’s bad for dogs. Stomach-guilt grips her for not slathering white wine, butter, tomatoes, rosemary, and feta cheese all over the chicken, letting it simmer and soak. It’s a waste of good chicken, hunting after this dog that has now conveniently disappeared. She scrapes the chicken breast onto a plate to cool.
She always was good at pastries and such, but living alone gives you just the two options of becoming a cook, or going broke and fat eating out every day. Perhaps her body’s ballooned a little, and maybe she doesn’t have the bank account she needs, but she can’t imagine what terrible shape both of those would be in if she did not cook so well. That’s the trick to keep from getting fat. You must cook for yourself, but not so well that all you want to do is cook and eat in your free time.
The chicken’s cool, so she wraps it in some napkins and walks down Gökyüzü Street, past a simit place, and into the alley. The alley narrows as she goes, until cars can no longer squeeze through. The elderly have set up tables for tavla and Turkish coffee in the shadows of the tall, square buildings. The men smoke cigarettes and play games while the women vie for the best gossip on their daughters and granddaughters, and everyone is distantly related.
“Thank heaven she never went to Istanbul,” one of the grandmothers says about her granddaughter. “She’d be wearing short skirts and nothing up top.”
The road ends at the edge of the park. There are plenty of fountains in the Ottoman style, a pond with an island in the middle, and a building on the island, and a dome on the building, but it’s more of a nature center or something than it is a mosque—a mosque would have been too idyllic. But perhaps it will become one yet. The Mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers, or something like that.
Short men who look like seagulls with their fat bellies straining their twig legs sweep up the patios of the cafés and restaurants. Slender men, dark from sun and dirt, sell simit and chestnuts and sandwiches. Mothers hooded in solid headscarves walk their daughters in patterned, colorful scarves down rose-lined paths and under acacia trees and through the playgrounds. The air is heavy as a rug.
Gökçe follows a hedgerow away from the parking area to a secluded flock of shaded benches. She sits with her bait. The feral dogs are out chasing cats or pigeons or butterflies. Soon they will come to rest under the treetop awnings, out of the sun.
She waits at the park, with her cold chicken breast in one hand and Twitter pulled up on her phone in the other. Today’s Zaman tweeted about a former Miss Turkey this morning. She clicks the link because the woman has beautiful hair in a style she’d like to try. The woman is being fined 80,000 lira and facing up to six months in jail for posting a satirical poem on Instagram. Gökçe doesn’t need to see the poem to know it insulted Erdoğan.
Until very late, after the ikindi call to prayer, she stays in the park, nibbling the bland chicken breast when her stomach grumbles, looking for good pictures of the former Miss Turkey’s hair. And her dog does not come. Not today, anyway.
Gökçe doesn’t consider herself superstitious but this is a lack of self-awareness. The mutt’s now chronic absence unsettles her. Perhaps her superstition stems from her mother and her mother’s mother. Grandma used to throw buckets of water after the family upon leaving her house to keep them safe, and she would never say her children’s names in prayer for fear that Satan would overhear and descend upon them. Mother spit on scissors before passing them. She stitched small nazar boncuğu onto the tags of her children’s shirts to keep away the evil eye. When Levent would tease Gökçe until she cried, Mother locked him in his room as punishment, careful to put a broom beside him for fear of leaving a child alone. This has persisted in Gökçe through her refusal to do laundry on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The silence in her apartment matches the one blouse hanging from the clothesline on her balcony.
For three days she conducts this ritual: cook bad chicken, sit alone in the park, fail to see the dog, eat the chicken. She’s considered enticing other dogs, bringing them home and training them, but that feels wrong. Perhaps the dog she wants is male, and that is why it’s disappeared now that she cooks for it. But that doesn’t make sense, because she cooks better than any housewife, and Turkish men love great cooks, so surely it is reasonable to think Turkish dogs also love great cooks. But no Turkish men love Gökçe.
So today, she sits in a different bench in the park with a jar of peanut butter instead. And it works like magic from the One Thousand and One Nights. The dog, muddied and panting with a smile, comes to her ankles, silent and docile like the gypsy children under highway bridges. She gives it some peanut butter, and it keeps cautious eye contact while it chomps and licks and smacks its mouth clean. It starts wagging its tail and barking. Gökçe flings a scoop of peanut butter onto the ground and watches the dog eat it. When he finishes, she puts another lump on the ground, this time farther away from the bench, then another in the direction of the edge of the park. She makes a trail of peanut butter lumps in the style of Hansel and Gretel. The men playing tavla pause their games only for a moment to make a joke or call her a crazy witch. She cannot hear what the old women say.
Gökçe leads her dog to the flower shop, and straight into the back room. While it eats, she closes the door and runs upstairs to figure out what to do next. The first thing is to get rid of that awful screech of a bark. But truly, the dog will need a name.
Dog is in the back room, barking at a cardboard cutout of Erdoğan when the bell Gökçe’s grandmother installed on the front door erupts with clanks. She commands Dog to heel.
“Gökçe? Gökçe, are you in here?” asks Levent. “I wanted to say I’m sorry, Abla, about the vase. And, well, maybe not just the vase.”
She throws the curtain to the back aside, startling Levent. “What are you doing here?”
“I didn’t mean what happened to be so—”
“Is this about money again? I haven’t got any. Get out.”
Levent hangs his head because he’s well practiced. She didn’t mean to sting him, but she has a dog to train, a dog that has finally begun grumbling at pictures of Erdoğan. Levent approaches his sister, keeping the counter between them.
“I’m sorry I didn’t come by yesterday. My girlfriend threw me out.”
“It’s a pity,” Gökçe says.
Brother and sister stand, palms on the counter, eyes on eyes, for a moment or so until Levent picks up cutters and starts trimming the new batch of tulips.
“Don’t do this,” she says.
“I wasn’t kidding about the oil classes.”
“Perhaps that’s why it bothered me most.”
“Not very useful, is it?” he says.
“It’s a pity,” she says. Levent doesn’t stop fussing with the tulips. “You could go back to your girlfriend. She’ll take you back for sure. She’s not very bright.”
“What happened to the dog out front?” he asks.
“Ha,” she says. “Dog. Dog, get in here.”
The dog takes his time coming in from the back, but Gökçe’s proud because he’s beginning to listen.
“You took it in?”
“I’m showing you that I can act. I can do things,” says Gökçe.
“Don’t torture it.”
“I’m fixing him, turning him into an angel—or something nice, at least.”
“It looks hungry.”
“I’ve trained him not to bark unless I want him to. Mostly trained, anyway. But look, he came when I called.”
“I don’t get it,” Levent says.
“Sure, he looks hungry. Of course he does. The cabbies are stingy with food when it comes down to it. I’ll be taking him to the park soon enough. I feed him and groom him. I’ll take him on walks when I trust him. I still have to buy a leash.”
“Gökçe, you took in a dog instead of supporting your brother.”
“It gets lonely around here, and he’s cheaper to take care of than you.”
“I’m not asking you to take me in, I’m not asking you to feed me. I’m trying to fix myself up, get a degree.”
“They don’t hand degrees out for single courses,” she says.
“A goddamned dog. You hate that dog. I hate that dog. You take it in, buy it leashes, spoil it, rub its belly, feed it, but you can’t give me petty handouts even. Does he liven up the place? Perhaps he organizes beautiful bouquets.”
Gökçe tuts her brother, and Dog starts growling.
“I don’t want you in here upsetting our training,” she says.
Levent comes to the other side of the counter. He kicks the dog out of his way, kicks it right in the ribs, ribs that lack any good padding. Gökçe tries planting herself between her dog and her brother to prevent further harm, but Levent shoves her aside and begins fiddling with the cash register.
She hits him in the shoulder, trying to deaden his arm like when they were kids in the neighbor’s vegetable garden. “There’s nothing in there, salak. If there was you couldn’t have it, anyway.”
He pries the cash drawer open and lifts the tray, but Gökçe meant it. “There’s nothing in here,” he says. “Where do you keep it?”
“There isn’t any, you shit. I’ve told you we’re broke. I’m broke. There’s nothing.” For the first time, she feels she ought to act more desperate, ought to rave more in the face of poverty, but then again, what is more depraved than training a dog-bomb?
Levent picks up the register because it’s not anchored, or even plugged in, and heaves it against the tile floor because in the core of his soul is a boy-tumor who never learned not to throw his toys. This time is different, though. He keeps throwing. He grabs vases, bouquets, pots, watering cans, shears, trimmers, ferns. Dog barks and barks and barks and it pisses Gökçe off because she wanted to kick his barking habit. Frustrated with Dog and her brother, she jumps on Levent’s back in a half-tackle and he buckles for a moment, as if he’s insulting her weight. He turns and, in doing so, swipes a shelf of beautiful roses clean with Gökçe’s protruding rear.
“Where is the money? Where is my money?”
Dog jumps up on Gökçe’s dangling legs. He scratches them in play. This is a game. This is one of the games brother and sister play.
Because God has a sense of humor, especially when it comes to siblings, a man with a beard, twill coat, umbrella, and angry wife comes into the shop for one of the bouquets that now litter the floor in cacophonous patterns.
“My God,” says the man, running over to the struggling siblings, testing the seams of his twill coat stretching this way and that to break into the fight. “Get out of here,” he clucks his tongue and hits at Levent’s head with the handle of his umbrella, catching Gökçe’s once or twice in the excitement. “Shoo, get out, thief.”
“I work here,” Levent struggles to say. The weight of his sister’s body, the scratches from the dog, the blows from the man, all squeeze the breath right out of Levant’s pleas.
“Get out of here, jackass,” Gökçe says to either Levent or the old man. The old man puzzles his face, then picks up a few daisies and leaves, shouting behind him that they’re mad apes, ought to be locked up, sorry for taking the flowers.
Gökçe climbs off of Levent’s back because she needs to sit down, but he keeps kicking the vases. “A goddamned dog, better than me. A dog, Abla.” He storms out at this notion, but Gökçe doesn’t bother telling him anything on his way. She’s no good at making up games or poems anymore. But she wants him to come back. Later, she wants him to come back and see Dog trained. To see her success before it’s blown apart.
Gökçe knows it will be difficult to truly kill something, even a mongrel, so she practices—she builds up to it. First she kills the spiders in back of the shop. Some of them take two or three slaps with an old bouquet. She worries about whether they feel pain. She’ll look that up later tonight.
Gökçe chases squirrels. She chases them through the north end of the park where there are fewer cafés but more vendors. She chases them with rocks, trying to get close enough to bash in their heads. She’s concerned about maiming one and having to get down on her knees to finish the squirrel with quick and heavy blows from a rock she took from the retaining wall encircling the pond. The vendors must say of this scene, “What is a fat woman doing chasing squirrels through the park?” They must be laughing because she didn’t think to wear her jeans or tennis shoes. Instead she’s running in flats and a long summer dress, and it’s not the most flatteringly cut dress she owns, and she didn’t put on makeup this morning, but the vendors are old, ugly men with warts and great-grandchildren.
She must keep practicing to kill things. Erdoğan is now adding a stable fitted for fifty horses—each costing more than 50,000 lira—to his new palace, illegally funded and built in the Atatürk Forest Farm conservation ground. Courts have ruled for construction to stop. They have brought in gold-plated toilets. The electric bill, it has been claimed, totaled over one million lira for the last month. He will hold a meeting soon with representatives of the Ministry for Women and Families. He will tell them rejecting motherhood is a rejection of humanity. He will tell them a childless woman is deficient and incomplete.
It is a stroke of luck, a miracle, a sign from God written on a flashing billboard five times brighter than the sun—Gökçe learns a simple bomb needs little more than fertilizer and home oil. Fertilizer! Divine Providence has made clear to her that, as a florist, she is on the just and righteous path. The trick is hiding the bomb on the dog.
Gökçe laughs at the irony in her trouble finding a blind person in Ankara. They don’t hold meetings, secret or otherwise, anywhere she knows of. The first blind man she found after walking through malls and markets all day used a cane instead of a canine. It doesn’t matter though, today she forgot her shears. She thinks about the sorts of things the blind might enjoy: the smell of spring buds, the lapping of salty air against their skin, the tang of the surf, the sound of garden fountains, the feel of grass poking through trousers and picnic blankets. But there’s no sea near Ankara, and she’s checked the parks and gardens.
She’d tried buying a service dog vest online, but you need a permit to order one, so now she wanders the roads of the city, looking up ophthalmologists in Ankara. The first one is a doctor out of Güven Hospital. She stops at a vendor to buy some honey-covered lokma, then takes a taxi to the hospital. The cabbie asks her if she’s bleeding. “No, I’m just visiting.”
“Are you pregnant?”
“I’m not married,” she says.
The cabbie takes another look to see if he ought to be interested in her. She sinks a little when he turns back to the road so quickly.
“Where’s your scarf?”
“I don’t wear one,” she says.
“Maybe people would prefer it.”
“What do I care?”
“It’s dangerous, you know,” says the cabbie. “There are men out there that can’t control themselves. Besides, people would treat you better.”
She sits outside the hospital and eats her treat before going in and asking the receptionist where she can find the ophthalmologist.
There are some stairs but she searches around for the elevator and takes it. She creeps into the doctor’s waiting room full with a boy and his father, and a young woman with an eye patch.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” asks the short woman behind the counter.
“Do you have an appointment?” The receptionist leans up onto her desk to see over the countertop.
“No, I’m just waiting for a friend, really.”
“Which friend?” she asks.
“What’s your friend’s name?”
“I’m just here to pick him up,” Gökçe says. “He has a dog.”
“Oh, you just missed him, probably went to wait for you downstairs.”
“No, I must’ve kept him too long. I’m always late like this,” she says.
Gökçe smiles at the receptionist, at the young woman with the eye patch, at the boy and his father, and she runs out the room and for the elevator. She stops at every floor on the way down because some shithead pressed each of the buttons and got off. And if God did not bestow upon the world these people, then it would be too much like heaven.
Gökçe runs out the hospital doors and bumbles down the street, huffing because she’s no longer twenty. At the corner, a janissary band with long mustaches and red tunics plays an old imperial tune. The nearby bars and restaurants are big and beautiful and share their smells with the street: roasted intestines, fried oysters and liver, basil, rosemary, anise. The square down the street is drenched in heavy sunlight. Everywhere are people shouting, walking, haggling, laughing, but she doesn’t see a man with a dog. She hurries down the street in a desperate ditch, letting her senses take her past a Domino’s, and a McDonald’s, and a bazaar with small tea sets and cinnamon sticks, and a kebab place, and she works up an unbearable appetite running after a phantasmal blind man.
There! Down the road a bit, she sees a tall man in gray pants and a navy jacket follow his golden retriever. She loses her breath she stops so fast, and then she pants like a hound. She can’t stop hyperventilating, risking alerting the blind man, the thought alone making her breathier. But blind men don’t care about winded pedestrians. She follows him down the street. Keeping a good distance back, she feels like a Bond girl. In her youth of course, she could have been one. Any woman in her family would’ve had the devious looks for it if they kept better care of their hair and bellies.
For six blocks this dog leads this man that leads Gökçe before they come to a stop. The retriever slaps its tail this way and that as the two walk into the apartment complex. Gökçe’s close enough now to hear the man muttering in equal parts to himself and his dog. She checks the address and takes a taxi home.
Next day, Gökçe stands outside the apartment block with a long pair of garden shears. But after an hour, people begin noticing her because of the shears behind her back, so she sets to work trimming the shrubs outside the blind man’s apartment to kill time and blend in. But the shrubs are terribly misshapen and desperate for form. She takes her time trimming back mangy branches. If she had a ruler she could do it right. She sculpts little boxes of green at the foot of the apartment steps. She livens up the street and feels good for her charity. The line of shrubs down the retaining wall catches her notice. She sets to work trimming those as well, but soon enough the man with the Seeing Eye dog comes out for a walk or an appointment—probably a walk because he and his dog look in shape.
She brushes a twig out of her shears and puts them behind her back, feeling stupid for hiding them from a blind man. She tiptoes behind her prey like the tigers from Mother’s fables. They go up the street for a time and take in the sights, more or less. She must stop with these puns.
The man wrangles his dog and stops to pat his pockets. Like a djinn, Gökçe becomes ethereal and swift, and descends upon the dog. Before either man or beast hears her and responds, she snips the leash with the shears. Remorse punches her in the stomach. This dog does not bark, or growl, or smell, or eat its own vomit as she grabs to make off with it. Instead, it wags its tail next to its owner and has manners enough not to pant in the heat. Gökçe swallows back the flashbulb-guilt. There are villains to consider in this plot of hers. She throws the shears off into the garden of a nearby apartment block, picks up the dog, and sprints, wobbly, down the cobblestone sidewalk.
The man wails and swings his arms as violently as he can manage, whipping the cut leash around like a bull’s tail. Once Gökçe’s far enough away, once the dog stops writhing, she sits at a bus stop bench and fiddles with the special vest. She manages it off, and runs back to the blind man as fast as she’d left. She drops off the man’s dog and thinks to say something but nothing other than the word anarchy comes to mind, but that’s for no particular reason. She jumps into the apartment garden after her shears, and digs them out of an overgrown tomato plant. “Good boy,” she says to the dog. It barks, and the man cries, and Gökçe runs all the way home.
The fuse of a firework is good enough, and it fits perfectly in the toilet-paper roll she has filled with fertilizer and oil-soaked cotton balls. Dog’s in the back, in his kennel which is just a makeshift, confined area cordoned off by flaps of cardboard, the flanks of milkcrates, and part of an office chair she’d found in the dumpster behind her shop. Every once in a while, when he falls asleep, Gökçe tapes pictures of Erdoğan cut from magazines to the crosses of the milk crates and gives the office chair a good rattle. She feeds Dog when he tears up the life-sized cutouts she steals from political rallies, and throws treats to him when they watch the news and he growls. When it rains, Dog tucks himself under the counter in the shop and stays there until she plops down next to him and coos. When she goes out for groceries, he follows without a leash. She’s gotten him used to the vest, and he listens when she talks in the empty shop between make-believe customers. He’s getting fatter. They both are. They eat all day long. In a month, her trickle of savings will be gone.
Next week they will practice blind and guide. But they’re running out of time. Elections will be held in June, and she can’t trust the rest of Turkey to vote with reason. In ten days Erdoğan will hold another one of his rallies. It is her only opportunity. “Would you like some sucuk?” she asks Dog.
He says yes with his eyes. If all of Gökçe’s life amounts to nothing else, if her meals continue alone, if her bedroom walls are never marred by the laughter of her own children, then she at least can claim she’s trained Dog very well to drool upon command. In a year, she’ll turn forty, a milestone for unmarried Turkish women. She will throw a parade alone, and drape herself in nazar boncuğu, and march to imaginary darbuka rhythms, and at some point in the night, she will deliver a one-line eulogy for her ovaries. Goodnight my sweet, unseeded organs.
Levent still hasn’t come back to ask his abla for money or tell her she’s a failure, and a loneliness digests in her stomach, the sort of loneliness that strikes when you quit smoking or skip breakfast. She turns in her bed like döner on a spit.
Gökçe has made the bomb and timed the fuse. She’s sewed it up into the vest as best she can. She’s practiced unleashing Dog on effigies of Erdoğan. She’s practiced being blind. She hasn’t made up a last testament because that feels like bad luck. She’s locked Dog up in his kennel without dinner so that he will be savage tomorrow.
In the nighttime though, just hours before she leaves for the rally, she cannot sleep. She becomes aware of all the sounds of the city around her, the clatter of drunken laughter echoing down alleys, the growls of railcars and taxis, the silent language of insects, and her throat swells with worry that these may be the last sounds clogging her ear canals. Every few minutes she checks her alarm clock to make sure that time is still passing, and its hands stop moving each glance she steals. She asks God be merciful, to sprinkle magic dust in her eyes and let her sleep. She asks her own subconscious to be kind and let her sleep. She asks the clock to turn away and let her sleep.
In her parents’ first apartment, there was a nook in the corner of the bedroom she and Levent shared. From her bunk, she could not see the back of the nook, just the opening. Levent took it upon himself to whisper that djinn would hide there and wait along the wallpaper seam, and he knew this because he saw them whenever he woke up to go sleep in Mom and Dad’s bed. Being older, Gökçe told him that he ought to stick his head in the dirt, but she never looked at the nook after sundown. And now she can’t look at the corners of her bedroom.
She casts off the sheets, careful not to gaze directly into the darkened angles of her room untouched by the drowsy streetlamps. She creeps down into the back of the shop, turning on every light she can safely reach along the way. She sneaks to the kennel, trying not to wake Dog, but closer she sees the lights have already roused him. She unties the office chair from the milk crates and scoots it out of the way, and Dog starts wagging his tail. She stands clear, and Dog goes to his food bowl immediately. Whispering, so as not to wake the djinn that might be hiding, she tells Dog no, to follow her upstairs instead. “Upstairs,” she says again, but he doesn’t know this word. She holds out her hand like she has something he might want. He follows her up the stairs. She turns the lights back off and guides Dog into her bedroom. The air feels fresher now, and so do the sheets. She pats the bed, and Dog jumps up to join her. She crawls under the sheets and pats next to her unused, second pillow. Dog crawls along his belly, tail wagging like a propeller, and curls up by Gökçe’s chest and head. She puts her arm over his body and closes her eyes. Still, she cannot sleep, but right now, this is enough.
KENAN ORHAN is a Turkish-American writer. His stories appear in Prairie Schooner, Massachusetts Review, The Common, and elsewhere. He lives in Kansas City.