Delaware by James Davidson
James Davidson’s “Delaware” is a well-paced short story, with dynamic and interesting characters and inventive descriptions throughout. With a voice that is authentic and captivating, Davidson is never overly precious with his words, and this story sweeps along, sharp but accessible, full of memorable lines and realistic dialogue and characters. This is not the overly familiar story of young people abroad. Prague is more than setting here; it is character.
Alongside its successful philosophical and internal questioning, this story is a showcase of narrative time. Please head to Davidson’s author’s note for more on this, but read this story with a sharp eye for compression, for ways to signify time passage with white space, and for an earned POV shift that plays off an acceleration of story-time. When we first read this piece in the entries to the 2019 Short Fiction Prize, for which it was a finalist, we knew we had something eerie and unfamiliar and wonderful here, and we are happy to share it with you now. —CRAFT
Amy had never noticed it before. It might have just appeared during the night, but it was so innocuous, it could have been waiting there, unobserved, for years. This childish symbol, something like a diamond with rays emanating from it, marked in chalk on the wall above the entrance to her building. The only reason she stopped to look again was the feeling that she had seen it before somewhere. But okay, Prague was covered in graffiti and signposted with all kinds of information that she could not decipher. It was only that she was new here and so city-struck, that she wandered around sucking up every detail, unable to filter out the trivial things from the significant. The sign on the wall, of course, was trivial.
She could not even say the name of her tram stop, Jiřího z Poděbrad. She practiced this every morning by repeating the robotic voice that announced the name as the doors closed. Her friends at the language school just called it JZP. As the tram moved down Vinohradská, the unending thoroughfare, she let her eyes drift along the tall tenement blocks of Žižkov with their dominating, gloomy bulk, and their delicate, stylized facades. Approaching the wall of the cemetery, she saw it again, the diamond symbol, with radiating lines of shininess, marked on the edge of a building. Twisting in her seat, she stared, wanting to be certain that it was the same, but the tram was already carrying her away.
At school she asked Anne if she knew what it meant, but Anne only looked at her in the way you look at new people. Nobody else in the common room recognised her description. She should have taken a picture of it. She thought about asking her midday class of Czech businessmen, but she did not feel comfortable with them, and she was afraid that she would make herself appear more of an outsider, an idiot following chalk diagrams.
Friday night there was a party at Kirsty’s flat. There was always a party somewhere, in one of the apartments of Žižkov or Vinohrady, where the English-speaking expatriates lived in hulking tenements of high ceilings and interconnected rooms, bedrooms leading to bedrooms, leading to bathrooms and further, unknown interiors. A promise was withheld behind the doorways and windows of Prague, hidden from view, impossible inwardness. Only a fool would pay attention to marks on the wall among the graffiti and torn posters, the chance arrangements of the surface.
She was drinking vodka, wanting to be drunk but held afloat by the renewed and intensified sensation of not belonging in this beautiful place. Perhaps a cigarette would help. Some people at the party claimed that Delaware did not exist. Others tried to dispute this, but, being pressed, were forced to admit that they had never been there.
Kirsty had shared a joint with some new people who spoke English but might have been from anywhere, and was now lying on the floor, unable to get up, reassuring everybody that she was fine.
Amy asked her, “Do you ever feel that you can’t tell the difference between what’s important and what doesn’t matter at all?”
“Are you making fun of my PhD in illuminated manuscripts?”
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Amy looked at her.
“I’m fine. I just can’t move in any direction. Also, maybe I’m never going to be able to again.”
“I’m going to get you a glass of water.”
There was an actual Czech person at the party. Amy had heard of Marek before. In Prague, if you had a Czech friend, that was a stamp of acceptance, one that you would nonchalantly reference in conversation among expat colleagues. She decided to try him.
“Hey, Marek. Do you know what those chalk symbols are, around Žižkov?”
His tone of voice was so uninterested that she understood instantly—all that she had imagined was only a coincidence of random marks. It was obvious. But she had started now. She took out her phone and showed him the picture, which she had taken, despite herself. Marek glanced at the screen with boredom, and she realized that she had become one of those people who took pictures of Prague on their phone, as if it needed preserving. Looking more closely, his face changed, showing distaste, and he handed the phone back.
“What is it?” she asked.
“This was on your building?”
“Is it bad?”
He looked away from her, across the chaos of shouting, drunk teachers, a form of competition between British and Americans, to see who could produce the loudest sentence out of their common language. Somebody was yelling, the Delaware River goes through Maryland.
She said, “I’m sure it’s nothing, it’s just that I’ve seen it a few times, on different buildings.”
“It’s a sign that some guys in Žižkov paint on walls. But now, not really. Before it was thing. Now they only do this, sort of like, you could say, nostalgia.”
“But what is it? What does it mean?”
“It shows that a kind of girl lives in those buildings. I’m not sure about the word in English. Maybe the word is ‘slut,’ but I don’t know. I don’t want to offend.”
“That sounds like the word. But why?”
“If a man, I mean one of those guys, if they, you know, have sex with a girl for one night, at her place, then when they leave that building, they make this sign outside.”
“But I am sure this sign is not about you.”
“It’s just a sign. It doesn’t mean anything. It was meaning something in past, but I think now, those boys who draw this, they do not know what does it mean.”
“I understand, thank you.”
Riding the night tram, sitting alone, Amy replayed their conversation, and his patience in speaking, the way that he had tried to say the correct thing. They do not know what does it mean. The robotic voice called out the tram stop, Jiřího z Poděbrad, stirring her. She repeated the name, feeling it yield, as she walked through the shadow. In the streetlight before her building, she saw the sign, still there, marked on the wall above the entrance. It was obvious now, in the darkness, drunk, and self-loathing: it was not a diamond at all, it was somebody’s hole.
For the rest of the week she did not see the sign again, despite looking for it on every wall. But she went back to the second building, pale green and curlicued with stone angels, to verify that it was also still there, childish geometry, identical to the one on her own building. As she was standing by the wall, over the road from the cemetery where Kafka was buried, a place that she had always intended to visit, but never had, she saw the front door to the building open, and a woman came out. The woman did not look up or around or show any awareness of the sign there on the wall above her head. She just walked away, towards her workplace perhaps or a meeting with a friend. She turned the corner and vanished into a universe of details. Amy felt disturbed, as if she had participated in the violation of a stranger.
All week her mind kept returning to the idea at unexpected moments. She was in the middle of teaching a lesson on the third conditional, with the sentence If I had gone to the party, I would have seen you, written in red marker on the whiteboard behind her. Teachers did not use chalk and blackboards anymore, naturally, but chalk, it must still exist somewhere, there had to be a shop where you could buy it.
She stopped and thought: Wait, do they just carry chalk around with them, or what? Like they go out to a bar with some chalk in their pocket, just in case they happen to meet a girl and go back to her place? And then, at like 4:00 a.m., they creep out, and instead of just going home to bed, they take the time to daub this image, and, what, was there always a ladder around these places? How did they get the sign so high up the wall? She might have laughed to herself at that, if she was not standing in front of twenty strangers. It was absurd, it was not worth thinking about. The whole thing was nothing. Relief swelled in her lungs, stifling her.
The third conditional is used for unreal situations in the past, that could have occurred but did not.
She met Kirsty and Jean for lunch at Radost, a vegan place close to Náměstí Míru. Kirsty was saying that Radost meant “joy” in Czech. Jean was talking about this new guy, Martin, who had just arrived at the school. She thought he might be Canadian, for no reason. The question came to Amy from far away: But how could they be so cruel? it was an act of such meanness, and such banality. To climb up there and publicly mark the fact that a girl agreed to sleep with you, as if she were worthless now. The unkindness of it, the smallness, it was stupefying. She hated Prague. There was no place for her among the clustered spires and bridges.
“Are you okay?” Kirsty asked.
“Yeah I’m fine.” She wondered if she could tell them. “Sorry. I’m stressed about this lesson I have to prepare.”
“What’s it on?”
“I don’t know. Modal verbs of obligation.”
“You have my sympathy.”
She was left with a sensation of waste: some vital thing had been thrown in the garbage; and this aftertaste of disgust, as though she were the one who had thrown it there.
Because there had been a guy. Just once, in the almost six months since she had moved to Prague, Amy had slept with someone. He was Czech. His name was Slava, and he knew somebody who worked in the office at school. He had been at an event, and she had sort of flirted with him because he was Czech, and she had only been in Prague for a month, and also, he was nice. It had been at her flat. In the morning, he was gone. They had not exchanged any numbers, emails, or plans. Everything pointed to him, and yet she could not believe it: he had been kind. Caressing her, telling her about the village where he was born. She had wondered if what he wanted was something else, not a one-night stand but a relationship, and she thought that she might be open to that.
It was impossible to believe that somebody could act that way in the moment, only to wait until you were asleep, and then, with such patience, with such pedantic, almost bureaucratic attention to category and classification, to stop downstairs and chalk that thing on the wall. So, it was not him. But it may as well have been, because it agonized just the same. She sifted the memories of that night, seeking proof, just one sign of crassness on his part; but she had been so drunk, and so disoriented, so in love with Prague.
Friday night everyone was drinking at The Gouged-out Eye. She asked some colleagues, in the most casual way, if they remembered the guy Slava from that party, but it seemed that there were many Slavas, acquaintances of half-known others.
“Why do you want to know?” Kirsty asked.
“Did you hook up with him?” Jean said. They were looking at her. The American girls in Prague did not like Czech men; they considered them to be sleazy and ugly.
“No. Well, kind of. But it wasn’t about that. It was about a writer he mentioned. Some Czech author he was going on about. I was meaning to write down the name, but I forgot.”
It was weird, come to think of it, because the American guys in Prague were exclusively interested in Czech women, who they believed to be sleazy and beautiful.
“Czech men,” Jean said, “they have such mocking smiles.”
“Mocking? What does a mocking smile look like?”
“Like I know something, but you don’t.”
“You’re paranoid,” Amy told her. “You feel threatened because you can’t speak their language, but they speak yours.”
Kirsty said, “Milan Kundera.”
“The writer you were trying to think of.”
“No, somebody not so famous.”
“Something Svoboda,” Jean said.
“Wait. Yes. How did you know that?”
“Some Czech guy told me at a party. I bought the book, but I never read it. Seemed kind of boring.”
“Will you two shut up about frigging Milan whatever-his-name-is,” Kirsty said. “That new teacher, the Canadian guy. He keeps looking over here.”
“No, at Amy.”
“He’s not Canadian,” Amy said.
“Shit. Don’t look.”
Some facts about Martin: He came from Pittsburgh. He had a degree in geography, but he had decided to become a poet. Specifically, a poet: he was not interested in novels, short stories, essays, or even prose poems. He walked her home, then they were standing outside in the frost forever just talking about Prague, how beautiful and bizarre it was, and Žižkov, how dark and self-concealing; and Delaware. Martin was able to speak with some authority on the non-existent state, since Pennsylvania shared a border with it.
Amy was conscious of the diamond symbol on the wall three feet or so above her head, and that he was facing the wall, but he did not look up. If Martin noticed the symbol, he did not say anything. During the long and uphill walk home from the bar they had passed two other instances of the symbol, but he had not remarked on it. He surprised her by kissing her, which should not have been surprising. After they finished kissing, for the third time, he looked at her in the lamplight. She did not say anything.
“Are you going to invite me in?”
“No,” she said.
“Because I like you.”
“Oh.” The way he said it, he sounded pleased by her answer.
The heavy door gave inwards with its familiar, electronic buzz, and she stopped on the other side of it, alone and safe. Wretchedly adrift, and yet relieved. She could have laughed. She began climbing the stairs up to the third floor. From one story up, she heard the door open again. Two voices, male and female, speaking Czech. She found that she was able now to recognize words of the language, but she could not make out the sentences. She glanced through the angle of the bannister and saw the girl who lived upstairs. The girl was laughing at something the man had said. It seemed very important that they should not catch her on the stairs, a voyeur there. Amy ran up to her room.
She had forgotten about Adam Svoboda, so it was a surprise when Jean gave her the book on Monday afternoon in the school canteen.
“Here. I’m never going to read it; you may as well take it. Don’t look at me like that. You wanted it.”
The title was End of Summer. Amy let her eyes wander over the text of the back cover while trying to remember why she had asked for the book. She was conscious of feeling happy that Monday morning. Over the weekend, in a sequence of emails and text messages, she had discovered that she shared most of her favorite bands and films with Martin, as well as a satisfying quota of things that they did not agree on, such as rap music.
For the first time it did not seem ridiculous, the life in Prague that she had wanted for some reason, despite all her friends and family, and a good job she’d left back home in New York. It was all still there, waiting for her. But now the book, and she was reminded of Slava, and the symbol on the wall. She put it in her bag and went to class.
She started reading on the tram ride home, and she continued in the flat, without stopping to make dinner or to respond to Martin’s messages. Five teenage boys in wartime Prague who dream of losing their virginity before they die. Jiří has overheard his elder brother talking about a local girl, Marketa, who has some psychological disorder and will sleep with anybody. The stories that his brother’s friends tell, the things that they have done to her, make his skin break out in goose flesh. But after fifty pages of wandering around trying to figure out where she lives, the gang discover that Marketa has been sent with her family to the death camps in Poland. That night, while his family are sleeping in the crowded apartment, Jiří experiences the most powerful orgasm of his life. Convulsed with loathing, he resolves to become a monk.
It was past midnight and Amy needed to go to sleep, but she needed closure, desperate for just one of these kids to get laid.
Kirsty was leaving.
“What do you mean, home?” Amy said.
“I got accepted for that internship in Michigan. I told you I was applying.”
“But why?” Amy said.
“What else?” Kirsty said. “Just stay in Prague?”
“Why not?” She realized they were staring at her.
“And work in a language academy?”
Six months later, Jean was leaving too.
“Here, I thought I should return your book.”
Jean looked at the cover. “End of Summer. Did I lend you this?”
“Yeah. Ages ago. Sorry.”
“It’s alright, keep it. Dreams of immersing myself in Czech culture are officially dead. Was it a good read at least?”
“I think so.” Amy had given up around two hundred pages in, three of the boys dead, one a monk, still virgins, when Honza left to seek his fortune in the United States. She was not interested in that voyage.
The weekly timetable of classes began to turn quickly as spring came around, and the city’s details lost their urgency. Riding the tram; teaching her lessons; going to Czech class; dinner with Martin; riding the tram. If Amy wanted to, she could forget that the signs were there; just let them fade into the white noise of texture.
“Whose party is this?” Amy hesitated with her hand raised to the buzzer.
“I don’t know,” Martin said. “I thought you knew.”
“I don’t learn people’s names anymore, they leave so quickly, and then it’s just new people to remember.”
The street was Bořivojova, a word that she delighted to say aloud. She scanned the building, looking for something that might trigger her to remember the girl’s name, and noticed a diamond shape drawn in chalk on the wall.
“You’ve been here too long,” Martin said. “It’s a sign, your time is up.”
“Did you ever notice those chalk symbols on the wall before?”
“That white shape, like a diamond.”
Over the course of a year, her hatred and contempt for the gang who went about with chalk had merged into something else, some nameless emotion akin to complicity, tinged with jealousy. This secret of theirs, a kind of conspiracy; a sign language that only they could read, in which a conversation took place written on the walls of the city, turning Prague into a book. She could read it, even if she did not want to. Perhaps she did want to.
“What are you talking about?” Boredom in his voice.
“You never noticed those signs before? They’re all over Prague.”
“Whatever.” Martin had already pressed the buzzer. “We’ll remember her name when we get inside.”
Martin was intelligent and funny. Perhaps he was just a person who never looked upwards, who did not notice things above the frame of doorways.
“What is it?” he said.
The door opened.
Martin was leaving. He was going to work for an NGO in New York.
“Did you email that architects’ firm in Brooklyn?” he said again.
They were in somebody’s kitchen, Elliot or Eddie or something beginning with E. The party was crowded and boring.
“Yeah, I forgot.”
“Come on Amy, you need to get serious. It’s super competitive. My sister put in a good word for you, but it’s not a sure thing.”
“I’ll email them tomorrow.”
“I know you love it here, but you have to realize, this is just a phase. We can’t stay in Prague for ever. We don’t belong here. Sooner or later we have to go home.”
There was a Czech guy at the party, David, who had brought some powerful weed brownies. Four people needed to go lie down in the spare room.
“Oh yeah, I love Czech literature.” She shook her head at the brownie tray. “Big fan of Adam Svoboda.”
“Svoboda, really? Did you read End of Summer?”
“That’s my favorite.” She watched him put another whole brownie in his mouth. This guy was reckless.
He swallowed, and said, “I always thought the end was kind of stupid.”
“You know, he seduces the novelist in New York, and then he finds out it’s Marketa, the crazy girl from the beginning.”
“No way,” Amy said.
“Exactly. I hate it when books do that. Real life is different. It doesn’t go in circles.”
She caught Martin’s glare. He was standing alone in the corner of the kitchen, watching them.
David smiled, not noticing. “Hey, you know your Czech is really impressive.”
She realized then that they had not been talking in English.
The whole way back to Amy’s place they argued. It was after 2:00 a.m. and they were drunk, talking too loudly as they crossed the inner courtyard of the building. The girl from upstairs came out of the shadow of the stairwell, silently, surprising them. In the dim light, she was beautiful. You forget sometimes about the sheer aesthetic potential of human skin and bones. Martin stumbled over his own feet, seeing her. The girl smiled, but to herself, not making eye contact with the Americans. Martin’s face was red. He tried to mumble something about icy floors, and stopped, as the girl carried on walking, ignoring him.
To Amy’s shock, he called after her, “I’m sorry, do you speak English?” and then, even worse, began to apologize in bungled Czech. The girl did not turn her head. She walked out of the front door and allowed it to fall heavily behind her. Amy noticed a ladder standing against the inner wall of the entrance hall. She was struck by the awkwardness of the object, folded and ungainly in the corner. An artefact of a handyman’s utility, oversized and unwieldly; and yet of elevation, of climbing and reaching upward. Absurdity.
Martin’s show of embarrassment disgusted her. He staggered up the stairs, angry and monosyllabic. They did not have sex. He slept like the vanquished. His vulnerability was a hole into him, and she lay beside him, caressing him. She did not love him.
Amy fantasized. A stranger in the flat, he fucked the girl from upstairs, and then afterwards, instead of feeling grateful, instead of feeling elevated by the possession of that beauty, as Martin would have done, this invader crept outside and drew a symbol on the wall with chalk, then disappeared into the streets beyond. Only the diamond remained. It was an orgasm that would haunt her.
Whose party is this? It doesn’t matter. Staff change all the time at the Admiral Nelson Academy: some teachers quit after only a few weeks, others manage to last a year or two, but beyond that, it does not pay enough, it does not offer opportunity to progress, there is no point staying. The school is just as a short-term place of employment for young Americans and Britons, wandering, unsure what comes next, looking for something to do in the meantime, unhurried, in the way of people with a whole reservoir of the future still to be wasted.
The kitchen door opens, and she walks in through the haze of smoke and laughter, looking for something. Is she American or Czech? Her name is Amy. Nobody knows how long she’s worked at the academy, but she is the best teacher on the staff, and the students love her. She speaks fluent Czech, and is happy to help newcomers with bureaucracy, translating forms and deciphering threatening letters from the visa board. The way Amy pronounces the name of the tram stop, Jiřího z Poděbrad, is like a ventriloquist’s trick.
Still, the new teachers do not like her. Despite her helpfulness, she keeps aloof from the other Americans. It seems that she only dates Czechs. She does not join in with the usual jokes and drinking games of her colleagues. They say she has a mocking smile. Where did she go? She was smoking by the window just then. From somewhere along the branching corridor, through the ebbing of a stranger’s overheard story, a doorway is closing.
JAMES DAVIDSON lives in Liverpool, where he is taking an MA in writing. He has previously worked as teacher and editor in Budapest, Prague, and Krakow, and his fascination with these regions is reflected in his writing. His novel The Chain won the First Novel Prize 2019.