M is offered a job teaching American English to Bulgarian teenagers. On our first night in Bulgaria we eat dinner with P, a second-year teacher at once alarmist, deluded, and wise. Her boyfriend works for our government. If something goes down—“If what goes down?” “Don’t you follow the news?”—P will receive coordinates to a field south of Sofia, where a chopper will evacuate her out of the country.
We move to a border city in southern Bulgaria home to the world’s tallest statue of the Madonna. Beneath it teenagers sell marijuana. A paralyzed man scooters in circles. Street-sweeping women clear leaves from the streets using brooms made out of wires and twigs. Depleted, persistent, the women travel in teams wearing bright yellow vests with TITAN stamped on the backs. They burn their leaves in big tin bins fatted with ash. Into a dumpster I toss a kitten that lay wet, bloody, and dead in the street. A coffin as tall as my chest leans upright beside the entrance to an apartment. Stone-faced women file out the front door, lighting cigarettes as they walk. Signboards and telephone poles are papered with the faces of the recently deceased.
M and I both believe we will die in Bulgaria, thousands of miles away from our families—but aren’t we our family, we wonder. The comfort this offers is brief.
Alex McElroy’s writing appears or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Kenyon Review Online, Georgia Review, Tin House, Catapult, and elsewhere. He is the winner of the 2016 Neutrino Prize from Passages North and is currently a Presidential Fellow at the University of Houston, where he is pursuing a PhD in fiction. You can find more work at alexmcelroy.org.