No Problem, No Problem
I’m not in the library for illuminated manuscripts, miniature books, yellow ink made from arsenic. I’m here for the Osman Quran. The tour group’s graying and balding heads lean close to the display case. The Quran opens to the page with ochre splatters that may be blood. Our guide Tamerlan says, An angry mob killed Osman as he held his book. So it is rumored. No drawings, no bright colors, just bold and black calligraphy on the thick, meaty pages of vellum. It’s gorgeous, I say. For a beat the tour group quiets; then Bonnie says, I prefer the Book of Kells. She’s complained across the length of the country, about the som she can’t change back into pounds, the British flag hung upside down in a hotel’s lobby. Her eyes cut to me, twenty years younger than the rest of the group and the sole American. The hangover plays steel drums inside my skull. The soles of Tam’s grey-market Converse squeak on the marble floor; we are now so close, I could reach one finger and touch his. The grey-heads whisper to each other, eye me as if I’m gum stuck on their shoes. This morning, over our breakfast of blinis and cherry juice, I told them Tam took me to the Jazz Bar in Tashkent’s Russian quarter the previous night. Why didn’t he invite us? Bonnie asked. At the Jazz Bar, Tam bought me a shot of vodka twice the size of shots at home and twice as astringent. Smoke spooled from ashtrays and clouded against the ceiling. I asked, Worst tour group ever or worst tour group ever? Tam laughed and shook his head, non-committal. He knows where his tips come from, Tam with gazelle eyes and high cheekbones, the sly smile as he parrots the government’s party line. His namesake piled heads into pyramids in front of the gates of conquered cities: what happens if Tam lets down his guard? Tam asked the Uzbek bartender to bring me another shot of better vodka; the bartender poured Checkmate vodka from a sweating bottle into my glass. It was as harsh as the first shot. I wanted to slide closer to Tam until I could smell his warm skin under the top note of Russian cologne but a man as lithe as Tam greeted him by name, slipped into our booth, pressed a hundred dollar bill into Tam’s palm. The narrow room turned sideways. The smoke stung my eyes until tears streamed down my cheeks; I went into the hallway where the air was clear. A moth with papery wings burned itself out against a bare lightbulb. In the disco-era mirrored tile, my eyes were seamed red. The Uzbek bartender followed me. Moon-faced, a front tooth glinted gold. The door to the bar opened to the odor of smoke; shoes squeaked against the floor. The bartender pressed against me, saying the only two English words he knew, No problem, no problem.
Lori Sambol Brody lives in the mountains of Southern California. Her short fiction has been published in The Rumpus, Tin House Flash Fridays, New Orleans Review, alice blue review, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter at @LoriSambolBrody and her website is lorisambolbrody.wordpress.com.
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[Painting by Osman Hamdi]