The Assassin of Bucharest

Monday, July 17, 2017

Powell sat on a bench beneath a linden at Cişmigiu Park watching an old man having a sponge bath in the artificial lake. Bucharest. How clean could the water be? The water from the faucets in his rental apartment ran orange. The old man had stripped to his underwear, doused himself with water, and was scrubbing his calves, thighs, elbows, and chest with the yellow sponge, wringing it over the top of his head. He was oblivious to the happy couples rowing past in boats rented by the hour, oblivious to the black swans honking at his encroachment, oblivious to the teenagers giggling in derision.

A certain freedom to his craziness, though Powell didn’t think the man was crazy since, despite the public bath, he had brought a sponge and a towel, and folded his gray pants and blue sweater in a neat stack beside a tree. Forethought and afterthought.

If it wasn’t for Powell’s son, Henry, pushing his Matchbox cars on the pavement, he might have crashed into the lake himself, though the Poliția would not likely treat a foreign bather the same as a native, and that could lose him his Fulbright. He could always explain that he was seeking an aquatic perspective on the magnolias that fringed the lake.

But he would never leave his son, not in that way, not even for a momentary reprieve. Henry’s mother, Powell’s wife Beth, had left, though he had understood it wasn’t truly her choice. “I’m ruining our good,” she wrote. He was teaching Dickinson to bored freshmen and Henry was in kindergarten making a paper maché dragon mask when his wife pulled onto an off-road in the San Gabriels and swallowed four bottles of stockpiled lithium. He only knew something was wrong, beyond the normal day-to-day wrongs that he was used to with Beth, when his son’s teacher called: Thirty minutes past pick-up. Did something happen?

Did something happen? A question replayed as a statement of fact.

He looked at Henry, at his brown hair, shaggy, curling at the nape of his neck, and the smear of ketchup across his striped shirt. Henry had woken up that morning feeling homesick, so Powell took him to McDonald’s. Henry sat cross-legged on the pavement, shoving his cars into the grass in some imagined high-speed crash. He was lonely—no friends but his father and Ileana, his babysitter and Powell’s Romanian student. The students at the Cambridge International School were well-to-do and rather stuck-up; while they spoke English as required during school, they refused to speak English to Henry. Powell’s rationalization: better lonely in Romania than in despair in LA. A deliberate dislocation to break their grief.

Six months earlier, while driving to the store for frozen pizza and frozen potstickers and rocky road ice cream, their usual Friday-night dinner, Powell had told Henry about the move. His son was strapped in his car seat, so the conversation would be easier than if they were at home.

“An adventure. Just you and me.” He smiled at Henry in the rearview mirror. Romania was not his first choice, but it was the only opening at the moment, and they needed to be somewhere else.

Henry was battling an alien on his Nintendo. “That’s not fun.”

“Dracula lived there. We can go to his castle.”

Henry’s eyes met his in the mirror. “Do we have to kill vampires?”

“Stake through the heart, but they’re all gone.”

“Gone like Mom?”

Now, Henry had abandoned his Matchbox cars and stood at the lake’s edge staring at the old man who was smiling at Henry, gesturing with his hand as if encouraging his son to wade in.

“Bună Ziua,” Henry said.

“Henry!” Powell shouted. “Time to go home.” He didn’t believe his son would jump in, but Powell was vigilant for them both.


Ileana, Henry’s babysitter, was also Powell’s student in his “Great American Poets” course at the university, his attempt to introduce the Romanian students to marquee stars: Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Stevens, Lowell, Plath. Ileana raised her hand and said, “Whitman says, ‘I lean and loafe’ in grass. Dangerous. Under Ceaușescu, illegal to step on grass in parks.”

After class, she stood beside his desk. “Scuze,” she said. She was nervous and tucked her brown hair behind her ear, but it fell forward into her face. Her face was angular, sharp, and even her speech was clipped, though that might have been her accent. “See?” she said, and held out her phone, scrolling down the screen. “Text poems.” The texts were in Romanian, so impossible to read: interesting or banal? Then she leaned into the desk and looked at him in hard assessment. “I know what you need.”

Boundaries were fluid here. Students expected him to have coffee with them after class, and the women suggested drinks at nightclubs. Some students were “officially” on his roster but actually were attending Swedish or German universities. His colleagues smoked in their offices, drank at lunchtime, and fucked their students. In their estimation, he was an amusing American prig. His? Enduring his wife’s absence.

Ileana tapped the desk with her phone and said, “At welcome party, I see your son. Yes? Maybe you need nanny. I do this.”


On the walk home from Cişmigiu, Henry counted dogs. Stray dogs. One: curled up under the back tire of a silver Mercedes. Two: in the doorway of a dilapidated, Art Nouveau apartment building. Three: sleeping in a cardboard box. Four: sitting on a bus bench. Five: inside a derelict phone booth. Six: nursing puppies under a shrub. Seven: skulking down a cobblestone alley with its tail tucked. Eight: lying in the middle of the sidewalk, pedestrians stepping around and over it. Nine: waiting at their building for Henry to give him a treat, any treat, this time half of his hot pretzel that Powell had bought at the bakery at the top of their block. All day long, a fat man in a flour-dusted apron looped dough into knots and then slid the pretzels onto a conveyor belt that moved through a wood-burning oven.

Powell and Henry lived at Piaţa Lahovari above the Sex Shop. Henry was interested in the window display—enormous dildos he mistook for toys.

Dog Nine lived in the Sex Shop’s doorway, which smelled of piss, human not dog. Its long, matted fur was tangled with leaves and bits of paper. It barked at the neighborhood junkies, but when they approached, the dog wagged its tail.

“Bun câine!” Henry said to the dog and held the pretzel out to it.

“Not so close,” Powell said.

Henry tossed the pretzel to the ground.

“The dog might have worms or rabies. You need to keep your distance.”

“Why can’t we take him with us?” Henry said.

In another life, in another place, back home for instance, seeing this dog with its plaintive face, he might have said, “Let’s take him home and give him a bath.” But this was not their home, not even their apartment, and they’d be gone in eight weeks. Who knew where the dog came from or where it went at the end of the day? Maybe it would take the pretzel from his son’s hand, but maybe it would lunge, bite, draw blood, refuse to let go. That’s how it happens, he wanted to say. That’s how you die. But he didn’t.

“The dog belongs here. He helps Serghei.”

As if on cue, Serghei came out of the Sex Shop with a bag of chocolate cookies and a bottle of beer, his cheap leather jacket zipped to his neck to contain his formidable stomach. He tossed Dog Nine a cookie and lit a cigarette.

“Bună Ziua,” Serghei said and handed Henry the cookies. “I have beer,” he said. “You and tată are skinny like dog. You need mamă to cook. That is what mamă do for her baby.”

Henry was quiet for the elevator ride to the sixth floor and all the way through dinner. At bedtime, he turned away from Powell’s kiss.


When Henry was a baby, he couldn’t, wouldn’t, sleep. Beth sat in the rocking chair, nursing him for hours on end. She was loopy, wide-eyed, desperate for sleep. “Please,” she whispered, “do something.” So he walked with Henry around the house, set him in the car seat on the washing machine, put him next to the stereo speakers. One night, he packed his son in the car and drove twenty miles down the 101 and back. Henry grew quiet and fell asleep.

A few months earlier, they drove that route again: Henry had been seized by night terrors, waking up and screaming for his mother. After a few sleepless nights, Powell buckled his son in the car and started the engine. Henry was quieted but stayed awake, staring out the window at the empty road. He asked the questions on the return: “Did Mom hurt when she died? Couldn’t we help her?”

No. No? Probably not? Maybe not? Her psychiatrist, in an unorthodox debriefing, told Powell that Beth was determined—just consider the method—and Powell had done everything he could. He loved his wife, and she loved him, but her illness had no regard for love.


His students were reading Dickinson—her poems were enigmatic, like their fragmented texts.

He asked Ileana to read, and she did so with halting vehemence.

“The Brain has Corridors—surpassing/Material Place— . . . Ourself behind ourself, concealed—/ . . . Should startle most—/Assassin hid in our Apartment . . .” She stopped, shifted forward in her seat, and continued, “He bolts the Door—/O’erlooking a superior spectre—/Or More—.” She sighed. The tangled words were tiring.

“Imagine Dickinson in her room, staring out her window into the yard, into the trees, maybe into the sky—feeling what?” he asked.

The students started to put away their books, anxious for him to finish. But he wasn’t done. “Think about that house. Think about her polite stanzas and the danger inside them,” he said. “We are our own assassins.”


That morning, his wife had driven Henry to school. The only thing out of the ordinary, and in retrospect, entirely significant. Usually, she had difficulty in the mornings because of her medications, which made her sleepy, made her irritable, and since he needed to be on campus early, he usually dropped Henry at school. She was the one who got Henry dressed and fed and out the door with a kiss.

But that morning? She was up early, dressed, and said she wanted to take Henry to school, be a proper mom, take advantage of feeling good. Powell worried—she smiled too brightly, sang, “Do-Re-Mi” as she rushed around the kitchen, and swept Henry off his feet—but he didn’t want to break the spell.

“I’m trying, Powell,” she said, then got into the car with Henry and drove off.

Later, Henry’s teacher would tell him that his wife was crying at the classroom door. “I didn’t know,” the teacher said.

But Powell stopped her. “She didn’t know herself. Not all of it.”

The assassin in wait. When did she count the pills? Before dressing Henry in his bluejeans and Star Wars shirt? After pouring his bowl of Lucky Charms and glass of orange juice? Or the night before, after dinner, after kissing him to sleep?

He sold her car without ever opening its doors again, only looking through the car’s windows to imagine his wife curled up on the back seat. Professionals scrubbed it clean. He drove out Route 2 to mile marker 451, to the stand of firs. Why here? Had she scouted the location or simply driven forward, stopping when she felt she’d gone far enough?


“Your son is not happy,” Ileana said. She sipped her coffee. “I take him to playground. He run and play, but I don’t think he have fun.”

They were having coffee in a cafe, talking about Ileana’s essay on Dickinson, but now they had come around to his son.

Powell glanced out the window. On the corner, a Roma woman with an infant strapped to her, holding an open box of trinkets: plastic watches and tiny toys for a few lei each. A young boy, holding his own box, ran up to her and handed over a fistful of money, then sprinted back across the busy avenue. Powell thought of Henry at school, hunched over his desk with his pencil, tracing h-o-u-s-e, wondering when they would be going h-o-m-e, or maybe he was standing alone in the schoolyard, watching the other children play and wondering how they could laugh.

“Henry likes you,” Powell said. “He watches out the window to see when you’re coming.”

Ileana ran her finger around the rim of her coffee cup as if in divination. “Nice for me, yes? But I know him for a short time and I think he is not waiting for me.”

He would like to tell her about Henry waiting for his mother after school. The teacher told Powell that his son had stood in the doorway, bundled in his red coat, holding his Star Wars lunchbox and his drawing of a green dinosaur eating yellow chickens and an announcement of parent-teacher conferences. She told him to sit at the table while she called his mom. Maybe she was stuck in traffic, she said. But he stood in the doorway for an hour until Powell arrived.

Powell smiled at Ileana. “It’s you. You save him from me.”

The Roma boy ran back across the street to the woman—his mother?—and he showed her his box, pointing at it. She yelled at him, though Powell couldn’t hear her through the glass. The boy shook his head, yelled back, and then the woman raised her hand, slapped him across the face, knocking him and the box of toys to the ground, and then she kicked him in his side. The boy gathered the toys back in the box and walked down the street. He didn’t look back. His small victory? Parents leave their marks. So much necessary repair.


The Bucharest Natural History Museum was a throwback to Communist-era misinformation. A diorama featured plastic busts in a “progression of cultures”: from a black monkey head to a Samoan head complete with voluptuous breasts, to an enormous blond, blue-eyed “Nord European” head. The dinosaur exhibit had a few spindly skeletons that were more suggestive of horses than velociraptors, but most were plastic toys arranged inside glass display cases. Toybox approximation.

“A volcano!” Henry ran over to the display, a large-scale plaster-and-paint model such as a sixth-grader might slop together for the science fair.

“Not very dangerous,” Henry said.

“We’re at a safe distance, but do you know how hot that is in real life?”

Henry shrugged. “As hot as the sun?”

“Hot enough to burn you up. Like how the wood turns to ash in the fireplace?”

Henry leaned over the railing and stuck his finger in the red lava. “I didn’t,” he said, “and I got close.”

“That’s not real,” Powell said and ruffled his son’s long hair. Henry needed a haircut. But where in Bucharest? No Kiddie Cuts here.

Henry shoved his hand into the volcano’s cone as if grabbing fire.

“Don’t,” Powell said. “There’s a railing.”

“This is a dumb volcano,” he said. “Nothing here is real.”


Powell strolled through Herăstrău Park intent on a bench in the sun. A stack of essays to grade on Frost’s “Desert Places.” The park was landscaped with discordant statues that stood in schmaltzy though poignant homage to civilization: caryatids, Venus, Prometheus, Hercules, Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare, Chopin, Beethoven, Chekhov, Twain, Darwin, Goethe, and most absurd, the Alley of the Heads—enormous bronze heads of the European Union founding members. He leaned into a colossal ear.

“Hello, Konrad Adenauer,” he said, then recited Frost: “I have it in me so much nearer home / To scare myself with my own desert places.’” He leaned further, the metal against his lips. “Beth,” he said as if her ghost were inside listening for him. He almost never said her name, not aloud anyway, because who would answer?

A child shouted into another ear. And a woman on tiptoe giggled as she spoke. What were they saying? “I have a cat!” or “I’m in love!” What would Henry say into an ear willing to hear everything and give nothing away?

Dog Nine sat in the Sex Shop doorway at good-natured attention. Powell reached down to pat the dog’s head. Its tail thumped against the concrete. He could see why Henry wanted to bring the dog home. Dog Nine was steadfast, attached to this corner of the city, grateful for crumbs and a few kind words.

He pulled out his ham-and-cheese sandwich from his satchel. When did the dog eat something other than Serghei’s chips and cookies? He tossed half of the sandwich on the ground. The dog sniffed at it, then wolfed it down. The dog looked at him, at the other half of the sandwich in his hand. Powell patted him again on the head, imagining the dog curled up at one end of the apartment’s ugly green couch. The dog might sigh, stretch, circle for a new spot, and then sleep. How difficult could it be to bring the dog back to the States? Vaccination papers?

He offered the dog the rest of the sandwich. A quick sniff, then the dog lunged, and its teeth clamped down on Powell’s hand.

“Fuck!” He kicked the dog in its side.

Dog Nine yelped and ran off.

He inspected his fingers. No broken skin as far as he could tell, so fine, but he knew better and it was why he wouldn’t let Henry get close to the dogs.


Powell sat on a bench at the edge of the crowded playground. Mothers were gathered on the perimeter, smoking, gossiping, and calling to their children every few minutes to make sure they hadn’t wandered beyond the park’s gates. “Cosmina! Mihai! Petru!” One woman held out a brown, grease-stained paper bag. Her daughter ran over and pulled out a square of streudel, apple plăcinta; her tiny fingers were dusted in confectioner’s sugar.

Henry was on the swing, pumping his legs back and forth, and as Powell watched his son, he wondered if things were precipitously worse, if coming to Bucharest had been a selfish maneuver, and it was time now to pack it in. But really, he worried about whether Henry, like him, was turning to an inside Beth instead of the outside world. Come back as you are, he said into the ear.

On the upswing, Henry straightened his legs, gliding through the air, eyes closed. Did he imagine himself a dolphin, an airplane, a spaceship? They’d all kept too much to themselves.

Henry pumped harder and higher, then let go, flying through the air, and before hitting ground, his face opened in easy, unequivocal joy.

Powell ran over, but Henry shrugged him off.

“The best ever,” Henry said.

“Do you hurt anywhere?” Powell said.

Henry turned his hands over. Tiny pebbles pressed into his palms, a knuckle scraped and bleeding. “Nothing hurts.”

“Maybe not now, but it will,” Powell said. He kissed the knuckle—his son’s blood in his mouth, copper on his tongue, the same blood that passed through Henry’s heart.


When they left the apartment for their walk to the park, Dog Nine was curled under the Sex Shop’s overhang. Rain earlier, so its fur was wet and smelled of neglect. Sunday, so the Sex Shop was closed. No cookies or chips. The dog lifted its head, thumped its tail. All was forgiven. Powell pulled out a wadded napkin from his jacket pocket and put it on the ground. Six leftover meatballs. The dog ate them in one bite.

“What if he wasn’t here?” Henry asked. “And you had to carry meatballs all day?”

“He’s always here,” Powell said. “And if not, we’d find another hungry dog.”


Herăstrău Park was empty, just a few determined stragglers walking through the gray drizzle to somewhere else.

“I tell her whatever I want,” Powell said.

“She won’t get mad?”

“Anything. Choose any ear.”

Henry ran over to Jean Monnet and leaned into the metal ear, his red raincoat wrapped around him like a signal flare. Was he summoning his mother for a do-over? Henry waited and would wait forever for her answer. Time to walk back, stop at a cafe for coffee and hot chocolate, buy pretzels from the fat baker, an extra for the dog. Powell needed to tell Henry that though they were diminished, they were enough.

Monday, July 17, 2017