Today is Costa Rica
By Assaf Gavron
Translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen
Whenever the wind blows—and it usually does—it sounds like ping-pong. The thin, hollow plastic ball hitting the green varnished hardboard table, and the ropes whipping the thick, synthetic, polyester fabric as it waves around in the wind. To him they sound the same, and that’s what he always thinks about in that critical moment when the flag’s life begins: no longer a starched and folded piece of cloth in the corner of a white box, one more shirt in a massive grey closet, but a living, colorful creature that frolics in the wind, representing a foreign country with its own language, its own territory, its own people. That’s what he thinks about—a ping-pong ball’s sharp, high, plastic sound when it drops—while he hangs the flags.
He climbs onto the back of the truck and looks at the flags. Which country’s are these? Sasson says he can’t remember exactly. Costa Rica or Puerto Rico. Something like that. He doesn’t have the paperwork with him. Sasson holds a glass cup of Turkish coffee in one hand and a lit Time cigarette in the other. He knows it would be too much to ask Sasson to check his paperwork. He’ll have to look it up in his book when he gets home.
He hangs the Puerto Rico or Costa Rica flags and takes down the Vatican ones. They’re dirty now. Dirtier than usual. White gets dirty quickly. That’s why most of the countries hardly have any big white spaces on their flags. Only Israel, the Jerusalem Municipality, and the Vatican. They like white. The Vatican flags were up for a long time, relatively speaking. It was an extended visit. He tosses the Vatican onto the truck and hooks up Costa Rica or Puerto Rico. He’ll find out later. He’ll sit at home with his book and read about them. Now he’s up on the ladder. He likes the quiet at this time of day, with the cold wind of late winter and the little lights glimmering from the houses of Ramot. He slides the sleeve that runs along the edge of the flag over the post and thinks about the people in the cars driving into the city.
Sliding the sleeve over the post is the part that strains your muscles, especially when it’s windy. He always spits into the wind a moment before, to find out which way it’s blowing so he’ll know where to tilt his head while the flag goes up. When it’s very windy, and he’s suspended up high on the edge of a crane, it’s easy to get caught off-balance. The flag slips on and starts its work. It waves around and invades the Jerusalem air—songs have been written about this air—like a proud but foreign body, like ants entering a home. He thinks about all the people speaking whatever language it is they speak in that country, wherever it is, and he hears the rope whipping against the fabric, and it’s like the sound of a ping-pong ball hitting a table.
Flag after flag, a hundred a day, or sometimes at night, and sometimes more than a hundred. Each flag has its moment. The moment it comes to life. Tonight there are many more than usual, because of the Vatican. He’d reached corners of the city where he’d never hung flags before, and now he’s revisiting them all. The flags that were once shiny like silk are now rags, grimy with soot and rain. He throws one after the other into the back of the truck and replaces them with clean new flags.
He waits for it and then it hits him. It starts again. The night comes to an end as he drives home, after he and Sasson leave the truck in the lot. He feels it at every stoplight and every pedestrian crossing. The empty, grey hours when solitary people walk by, cross in front of his car or drive beside him. Every time he sees someone cross the street he stops and thinks: what would happen if I didn’t see her? Or if the brakes failed? I would slam into the side of her body, fling her, snap her. She’d be thrown onto the road and I’d stop suddenly. The bus behind me would ram into me. It would be my fault. I would go out to the woman and apologize. The whole rear of my car would be crushed. Maybe the bus driver would be hurt, or a passenger who had just gotten on and not yet sat down would be thrown into the front windshield.
He stops and the woman crosses at the pedestrian crossing. He keeps on driving. A car slows down on the cross street of the next intersection. But what if it didn’t stop? If the driver kept going? He would hit me, the car would spin, the bus behind me would ram into me, I’d be crushed, I’d hit the windshield… But the other car stops and he drives on through the intersection and everything is fine. Then he imagines the car next to him swerving into his lane. In his mind he can hear the screech of metal crushed by the force of impact, the scratches, the crumpled steel—it’s the opposite of the calming sound of wind slapping ropes against synthetic fabric.
He can’t sleep. He opens up Yitzhak Levanon’s Countries of the Universe. It’s the twenty-fifth edition, from 1981. That’s all he has. That’s all he could find. Many years have gone by, he thinks, but the countries are the same, aren’t they? The names are the same names, the history is the same history. It’s true that some of the countries whose flags he hangs aren’t in the book—like Georgia, Uzbekistan and Croatia—but you can’t have everything.
Puerto Rico, he sees immediately, is not the country whose flag he was hanging, because tonight’s flag didn’t have wide red and white stripes and a blue triangle on one side with a white star in its center. But he reads about it anyway. Puerto Rico is no longer called Porto Rico. It used to be called that, but in 1932 the name was changed to Puerto Rico. Columbus discovered it on his second voyage to America in 1493. He thinks about Columbus and that second voyage. He’d never known there was a second voyage. Why had he made it? And what did the ocean smell like from the ship?
Here is today’s flag: blue stripes along the top and bottom, then white stripes, and in the middle a red stripe, broader than the others. On the left, inside the red stripe, is a circle, and inside that, an emblem with seven stars above three hilly islands in a turquoise sea, and a big sailboat in the sea. The name means “the rich coast.” National anthem: “Noble homeland, your beautiful flag.” He smiles proudly. Cocos Island, he reads, some four-hundred-and-eighty kilometers from the Pacific coast, is mostly covered with tropical virgin forest. He thinks faraway into the virgin forest. Who lives there? Who fishes the fish? Who fries them? Who eats them? He can taste them.
Costa Rica was discovered by Columbus in 1502. It’s all coming together now. Why did he keep wanting to discover things? He reads on. Shark livers are an important Costa Rican product. He thinks about the fishermen who hunt them, the market peddlers who strip them, and the teeth-lined jaws that probably hang on the restaurant walls. The Costa Ricans are known as Ticos by their neighbors because they often use the suffix -tico…
He falls asleep.
He dreams he’s on Cocos Island, standing in the virginal, tropical forest. Behind him are three brown hills, just like in the flag, and in front of him a strip of white sand and a turquoise ocean, where Captain Cook’s barque sails. He remembers that Gary Eckstein hit from the eighties and sings it to himself: “Captain Cook sails far, far away, all day long…” But then three sharks jump out of the water and threaten to devour him.
He does not wake up in a panic. He is not soaked in sweat. He keeps on singing: “At nights we drop our anchor, time to sleep…” The sharks land on the white sand, where they thrash about, and three local natives, chubby and bare-chested, slice open the sharks’ stomachs and remove their livers. He keeps on singing.
At the corner store, he buys some chocolate milk in a bag and a small container of sour-cream. He drinks the chocolate milk while he walks toward the President’s residence to look at the flag he hung last night. The flag looks droopy on its flagpole. Lifeless. Hunched, it lowers its gaze to the President’s manicured garden. He prefers to hang flags at night, when the wind breathes life into them and people are more introverted.
He crosses the street at a pedestrian crossing and imagines the approaching bus driver become momentarily distracted, making him lose control of the wheel, veer over the yellow line and smash into him. The impact breaks his legs and throws him into one of the shops on the side of the road.
He has to take the Vatican flags to the laundry, then take them back to the company for a count. This time there are twenty-three missing. Sasson says it was probably Beitar soccer fans, because of the yellow. He and Sasson head up to the office to log upcoming orders from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Canada three days, China four, Australia three. They record all the sizes, quantities, locations, and the exact hours for hanging them up and then taking them down after the visitors leave town. Then he takes the truck to the shop to have some work done on the old yellow cherry-picker that lifts him up to the places where flags overlook the city.
At night they make their rounds to check on Costa Rica and make sure nothing got twisted around or torn or stolen. The visitor is arriving tomorrow, Sasson says. The wind has picked up. He can hear the big flags slapping, hitting, patting, fluttering. He presses his face towards the sailboat in the heart of the Costa Rican flag, and feels the polyester stretched taut. Someone once told him that you adjust the sails’ angle in a sailboat to use the wind to change directions, and how you have to duck down just in time so the boom doesn’t hit you. Sometimes you lean over the side to balance things out. Up in his cherry-picker, he leans out toward the flapping Costa Rica flag, maneuvers himself from side to side with the joystick, shuts his eyes and he is in a sailboat. Sasson smokes a Time down below in the driver’s seat. He doesn’t look up.
When he picks up speed, he wonders what will happen if he doesn’t notice the car in front of him stopping suddenly because a dog jumps into the street, and he rams into it from behind, and the seatbelt doesn’t hold him back, his head jerks forward, his chest hits the wheel. Canada is only twenty pages behind Costa Rica in Countries of the Universe. In between them are Chad, Chile, China, Colombia, Congo. The major industry in Canada, based on total output, is pulp and paper. He doesn’t know what pulp is. China has been independent for over four-thousand years. It borders eleven countries and three seas. There are many wars in its history, but he finds wars boring. Silkworms are commonly raised. He thinks about a short Chinese man with a silkworm farm, whose wife has the most beautiful kimono in China. The Chinese say that a baby is one year old when it’s born, because they take into account the gestation time. They give their children temporary names while they are little, and when they grow up they can choose different names. The book says ‘choos’ instead of ‘choose.’ Not a day goes by that he doesn’t find typos like that. Confucius says that a proper, good society is possible only where there are laws regulating the relations among men, and all beings obey those laws. The Chinese do not have a day of rest every week.
He thinks about a restless Chinese-being with a temporary name. He wonders, What would I call myself if I were born with a temporary name and could choose my own? Then he remembers: kimonos are Japan, not China.
He falls asleep and dreams about hairy, squirmy silkworms surrounding him and frightening him. But then three little Chinese people in blue work-clothes cut them up into very thin slices and make the most colorful, beautiful silk in the world.
When the flag arrives, glaring red with a big yellow star in the corner and four yellow stars surrounding it, he lowers his head and thinks about the distant Chinese-being again, and he hears the ropes slapping the flag—fifty percent nylon, fifty percent polyester. Four days later, when he slowly drives around the city in the morning, taking down China and hanging up Australia, there are eight flags missing. Must be Hapoel fans, Sasson says.
Australia means “land of the south.” Captain Cook discovered it, which suddenly reminds him that the Gary Eckstein song was about Captain Jack, not Captain Cook. Funny how everything comes together. Australia is number one in the world for producing wool and raising sheep… and sea cucumbers… and turtle shells. The Australians try to schedule vacation days on Mondays whenever possible, to make long weekends. They also have Cocos Islands. Funny how everything comes together.
In the evening it looks like it’s starting to rain or even hail. The road will be slick and he’ll lose control of the wheel and the brakes, he’ll slide, roll over, lurch through the guard rail and tumble down, dragging little rocks with him, baby pine trees, moss and dirt, rolling over and over. He’ll lose consciousness as soon as his body tugs against the seatbelt and will never reawaken. But the car down in the valley will continue to emit a hiss of smoke after it’s finished rolling, and the rocks and dirt will keep sliding down for several more seconds.
At home he opens Countries of the Universe again, thinks back to the white stars on the Australian flag, shuts his eyes and ponders turtle fishing. Someone once told him they kill them for the meat and the shells.
He falls asleep.
He dreams about sheep, hundreds of them, thousands, standing there bleating. One moment they’re fat and wooly, the next they’re bald and thin, with yellow teeth and crooked jaws. Captain Jack sails far, far away, all day long…
On one corner of the President’s house hangs a droopy Australian flag. Beneath the flag he sees a little heap. When he gets closer he finds a dead bird. He looks up: it must have hit the flag and fallen. It had flown in last night from another land in search of comfort, for some place calmer and warmer. Maybe it just wanted a change of scenery. But the Australian flag stopped it. He bends over and strokes the bird’s head above its beak. One of the Presidential security men comes out of his hut and asks him to leave. But sometimes birds shit on the flags, too, he thinks. Funny how it all comes together.
Copyright © Assaf Gavron 2013. Translation copyright © Assaf Gavron 2013.
Assaf Gavron, born in 1968, has published five novels (Ice, Moving, Almost Dead, Hydromania and The Hilltop), a collection of short stories (Sex in the cemetery), and a collection of Jerusalem falafel-joint reviews (Eating Standing Up). His fiction has been translated into nine languages. His English translation, Almost Dead, was published in 2010 by HarperCollins in the U.S. Among the awards he has won are the Israeli Prime Minister’s Creative Award for Authors (2011), the Israeli Geffen award for the novel Hydromania, the DAAD artists-in-Berlin fellowship in Germany (2010), the Buch Fur Die Stadt award in Germany for the novel CrocAttack, and the Prix Courrier International award in France for the same novel.