Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Winter 2016    poetry    all issues


Cover Joel Filipe

Casey Whitworth

Mike Beasley
Childish Things

Dan Timoskevich

Brandon Barrett
No Weapon Forged Against You Will Prevail

Martine Fournier Watson
The Box

Abby Sinnott

Kim Catanzarite
At the Light on 17 and King

Louise Hawes
Bend This Page

Mike Karpa
The Link

Sandra Wiley
Bullfrog Stew

Melanie Unruh

John Etcheverry
If God Were a Woman

Matthew Callan
I Need to Know If You Have the Mask

Shannon L. Bowring
Still Life

Shoshana Razel Gordon-Guedalia

John Etcheverry

If God Were a Woman

Nick laid the back of his hand on the smudged glass of the meat case. Warm. “If you don’t refrigerate this lamb, it goes bad.” He had this discussion with a butcher every week.

“What can I offer you, Brother?” The meat cutter stepped forward wiping his palms across his apron, new blood and grease mingling with the old. His Russian was broken, but far ahead of Nick’s Uzbek. The butcher spit out the pumpkin seed he had been working on and half of the shell clung to his lip as if indecisive about which was the worse fate, the floor below or this man’s mouth. He swiped it away. “I cut that lamb today and I assure you there is no fresher meat on this bazaar. How much do you want, Brother? A kilogram? You would be wise to take a whole leg at these prices.”

He might have cut the meat that morning, but its blackened edges and the shriveled ridge of fat that rimmed the sinewy leg fixed the time of death somewhere in the previous week. “Why don’t you turn this refrigerator on?”

The Uzbek waved his hand, swatting at a fly or perhaps dismissing the superstition of bacteria. He smiled at Nick and pushed the next seed through the space in his mouth where a couple of teeth had gone missing. “That sheep lived a good life without electricity. God willing, he won’t need it in death.”

The trader in the next stall called out from his stool, “I’ll give you a good price on horse sausage, Brother.” He laid his hand upon his chest and vowed, “I’m losing money, but I grant my blessing on your house for saving me the burden of lugging it home tonight.”

Nick declined and told the first man, “I’m looking for a loin.”

“And your beautiful wife?” the butcher asked, peering over Nick’s shoulder. “Perhaps she would prefer a leg?”

The woman behind him had been tailing him since he entered the bazaar and made no effort to conceal herself. Working for the State Department had conditioned Nick to uninvited company, but this woman looked more like a pickpocket than a security service lackey. “What do you think?” Nick said, turning to her. “The leg or the loin?”

Something flashed in her eyes and Nick couldn’t say what it was, but it was no apology. She stepped forward. “Give the man what he asks for and keep your thumb off the scale.”

The butcher stared her down as he addressed Nick. “This lamb was an extraordinary animal, my friend. I knew it personally. It was special, but it was born with just two loins and I sold them both this morning while your wife was still enjoying her sleep. I can offer you ribs and a foreleg.”

He went with the ribs and they quibbled over the price until Nick lost interest, understanding that haggling was the national pastime here and he was ill equipped for the game. He paid the man, who then wrapped the meat in newspaper and handed the packet to him across the dormant display case.

Nick redistributed his bags to balance his load and refocused his attention on the woman. She had a dark, exotic appeal inclusive of the sundry races that had beset Central Asia over the centuries and her eyes hinted at an eagerness to fight, while the fishhook scar on her cheek revealed that she had survived a skirmish or two. “So?” he asked. “Who are you?”

“I will take you home.”

Her accent melted the icy Russian words and thawed something in Nick. Anyone with a car was a potential cabbie in Uzbekistan, but a woman working behind the wheel was a rarity. “You drive a taxi?”

She shrugged her shoulders, hands pushed into the rear pockets of her jeans. “And what?”

“And nothing,” he said. Only one woman had ever stopped her car for Nick, a human tree trunk on the downslope of her forties whose grandkids flitted around in the back like a couple of caged sparrows and functioned as her chaperones. “What’s your name?”

“I am Asal.”

“I’m Nick.” He reached out his hand and she stared at it as though he had offered a different branch of his anatomy for her consideration. “Why don’t I follow you?” he said, and he reoriented his palm toward the exit.

Asal angled through the crowd to the street and signaled for him to wait at the curb. She crossed to a white Chevrolet Matiz; its windshield had a crack that meandered from the mirror to its bottom right corner, and the fender on the driver’s side was crumpled. The front bumper was altogether gone.

She U-turned across traffic to a medley of horns and Nick flagged her down, silencing surrounding conversations. A pair of women in housecoats regarded Asal with folded arms and knit brows, and when one of them caught Nick watching, she fired a scowl right back at him. He settled his bags in the back and hadn’t yet seated himself up front when Asal pulled a screwdriver from her door pocket and pressed it under his collarbone.

“Should I take this to mean you don’t want me sitting next to you?”

“If you understand that your money pays for transportation only, we will have no problem.” She traced his jawline with the screwdriver. “Men have trouble remembering that.”

He laid his hand over hers and drew the tool away. Her eye twitched with the contact, but she yielded. “I won’t forget,” he said. When he reached back for the seatbelt, he saw that the two at the curb were still gawking. “You’ve got a couple of friends over there.”

“Unlike men, women forget nothing.”

He waved at the pair and when he pulled the belt around to click the buckle into place, he caught Asal, eyes narrowed, watching him again. “What?”

“I know how to drive.”

He looked down at the seatbelt and considered the scrambled cars from a moment earlier, but went with a safe response. “I’m an American.”

She mulled that over before easing into the stream of traffic and reached for the volume button on the CD player, then held back. “Why do you speak Russian so well if you are American?”

“I was born there. Saint Petersburg. My mother and I moved to Virginia in the U.S. when I was a kid.”

The scar curved with Asal’s cheek under her right eye, running about an inch and a half from end to end. The suturing had been clumsy, yet Nick couldn’t deny the allure in the result. He stole a few glances and when she caught him looking he asked, “Did someone tell you to offer me a ride?”

Her face reddened and the tendons tightened over her knuckles as she gripped the steering wheel. “I don’t do what people tell me to do.”

“Alright, did someone ask you? Pay you?”

“Who are you that someone would ask such a thing of me?”

“Me?” He chuckled. “I’m no one, but I work for the U.S. Embassy and that draws more attention than it should.”

She ripped across two lanes to the side of the road and skidded to a stop. Nick was still wrestling with his belt by the time she got out and half-circled the car, spewing a stream of embittered Uzbek as she paced. He caught up to her and she yelled, hands to hips, “The American Embassy?” She kicked the car where the bumper used to be.

He should have gathered his bags, laid a little cash on the hood, and walked away, but he leaned against the fender instead and asked her to explain. She said nothing, just turned back to the car. He was curious now and she was about to take off with his groceries, so he jumped in and the Matiz was rolling before he closed his door. After she maneuvered the car through about twenty squealing turns down side streets and back alleys, Nick told her to stop before he got sick.

“We are nearly there.” She pulled over and studied the rearview mirror.

“Nearly where? I haven’t told you where I live,” he said. Rather than answer, Asal hustled him to a market midway up the block and watched out the window. “Who’s after you?” he asked.


He looked around the store. Two workers who showed only a vague interest in the intrusion leaned on their elbows, bulk cookies and crackers sat on the floor in open boxes with no scoops or tongs in sight, and an array of cheeses and sausages languished in a display case. The store was a shadow of the bygone Soviet era, but a single empty Carlsberg beer bottle on a shelf above the unwrapped bread loaves caught his eye.

Uzbekistan law prohibits the sale of alcohol outside state-controlled liquor stores, but booze found its way around and Nick knew this sign from a shop near his home. He cleared his throat and nodded toward the bottle. The clerk glanced over to the cashier, who signaled back, and Nick raised a single finger. The clerk went to a backroom for a few seconds and returned with a bottle. He paid and twisted the beer open, then drew the bottle to his mouth, eliciting a harmonized gasp from the workers. One of them said something that Nick took as an invitation to leave. He sipped—the beer was warm and a little skunked—and pulled up beside Asal at the window.

The street was narrow, an ancient desert layout meant to maximize the utility of shade in the summer. The design pitted inhabitants atop each other, making privacy elusive and justifying the walls surrounding so many parcels. Nick checked across the street and caught the curtain in a second-floor window stirring as if disturbed by a breeze, though the window was closed.

The muscles in Asal’s jaw danced when she saw him taking a long pull from the bottle. She looked around him to the unsettled workers, who glared back at her like Nick was her insolent child and she had better deal with him. “We don’t drink in public,” she said. She snatched the bottle away and resolved the issue by finishing off the beer. “We will walk from here.”

They strolled along an abandoned tramline, where weeds had taken over and a couple of goats grazing between the rails regarded them with noisy bleating. They reached a tumbledown apartment building and Asal pulled the first door, which opened onto two units separated by a staircase that led up to the next level and down to a basement. Somewhere in the building a child was wailing. Asal stepped around a baby stroller loaded with fresh rounds of flatbread and descended the stairs. Nick followed, careful in the dark on the uneven steps.

They went through an unmarked door into a restaurant, where a bearded man who was far too thin to be in the food service business hugged Asal. The men made eye contact and Nick decided that he liked this stranger.

“Laziz,” he said, extending his hand. Nick shook and introduced himself, and Laziz sidestepped an assembly of chairs and tables as mismatched as a crowd boarding a train as he led them to a booth at the back wall. Traditional music played in the background, its complex rhythm discordant to Nick’s ear, and a chubby server in slippers broke from her customer to the kitchen.

The three settled in and the server arrived with a decanter of vodka and a vegetable platter. Asal filled the glasses and they drank without toasting, then Nick followed the shot with a wedge of tomato, while the others went with cucumber spears.

“I met with my mother,” Asal told Laziz. “I can tell you her anger has not cooled over the years, and as I suspected, they are pressuring her.”

“What’s going on,” Nick asked, “and who are ‘they’?” All of a sudden, the room felt too small. “Maybe I should go.”

“Pour,” she told him, holding her glass out. “Please.” Nick filled the glasses and they drank, chasing the booze this time with bread. To Laziz, she said, “He works for the American Embassy.”

Laziz pitched his brows like a tent. “Can he help you get a visa?”

Asal assessed Nick as she might scrutinize a goat at the marketplace, and he didn’t sense that he came out on top in the comparison. “What do you do?”

“I adjudicate visas.”

She raised her palms before Laziz responded. “The Interior Ministry will not give me an exit stamp. A visa makes no difference.”

“Can you help her?” Laziz asked Nick.

“Help her? I don’t even know her. Who put her at the bazaar today?”

She threw a carrot stick at Nick that went wide and caromed off the wall behind him. “I was there looking for foreigners who pay too much for taxis. No one put me there and by the way you did not pay me.”

“I planned to pay you when you got me home, but that didn’t happen.”

She went for the vegetable tray again, but Laziz caught her wrist. “Can you help her, Nick?”

“I’ll do what I can,” he said, “which is probably nothing, but only if she tells me why she was following me.”

She tugged against Laziz’s grip and he held fast. “Tell him,” he said. And in a softer tone, “Maybe he can help.”

Her eyes looked everywhere but at Nick and she settled her sight on his chest. “I came home from school one day to find my father arranging my marriage to a stranger who was twice my age and smelled of grease. I left that night and never went back. Eleven years have passed since then.”

“Her father fled to Dubai two years ago with the family money,” Laziz said. “He died recently and the money is held up in the bank. The Ministry of Finance will allow them to release it to her mother if Asal . . .”

If Asal helps them, Nick thought. “So they sent you to the bazaar?”

She shook her head. “Some other people told me you shop at Yunusabad on Saturdays. They said I should find you and give you a ride.”

“And they weren’t from the Ministry of Finance?”

“No. My mother will never see that money.” She muttered to herself and regrouped. “They told me to get to know you, get information from you, and they would forgive a certain problem I have with them. I agreed, but I did not know you are an American diplomat.”

Laziz clarified, “It is never good to get caught up in the jurisdictional disputes of our government ministries.”

Asal’s eyes widened as she spotted something behind Nick. Laziz stiffened at the same time and Nick turned to see a uniformed security services officer looking in at them from the door, and then dart out. “He’s going for help,” Nick said. “Is there another exit?”

“There are stairs in the kitchen leading to my apartment,” Laziz said.

“Go,” Nick told them. He moved toward the door as the others went to the kitchen. “Stay away from your car,” he called out. “And meet me at the Navoiy Metro stop when you can.” Pointing to the wide-eyed customer across the room, he said, “You heard nothing.” He reached the door and locked it just ahead of someone turning the handle. A second later, a voice called for him to open up and Nick stalled a long five or six seconds to buy Asal time. He took a slow breath to calm himself, turned the deadbolt, and opened the door to a goon with his shoulder tucked and poised to charge. Nick smiled and spoke as though greeting guests in his home. “Afternoon, boys.”

The trio looked in and one of them, a gray-haired cop, said something to the others while pointing at Nick. He stepped forward and Nick blocked him, jigging left and then right, feigning confusion.

“Get out of my way.”

“I’m sorry. You men are hungry and I’m keeping you from lunch. Pardon me, please.” He stepped back and cut in again as the officer moved to pass. The goon, grim presumably because Nick had deprived him of the opportunity to break a door, lurched forward. He was big, but so was Nick and that smile vexed him, but his boss prodded him on.

Asal would have escaped by now and despite Nick’s diplomatic immunity, interfering here would get him thrown out of the country, so he stepped aside. He paused on the stairs and listened as Laziz offered the visitors a menu. What came next sounded like chairs and tables being reduced to kindling.

Nick and Asal slipped into his yard and he pressed the outer door closed, relieved. “What is that?” Asal asked.

She was pointing at his truck, a 1994 Ford F-350 Crew Cab that he started driving on his stepfather’s dairy the day he could reach the pedals. He savored the looks it drew from colleagues as he tooled through the embassy lot in it. “That’s my pickup,” he said. “The starter died and it took a month to get a replacement shipped. I was hoping to install it this afternoon.”

He opened the front door of the cab and raised a finger to his lips, then reached to her back pocket and removed her telephone. She nodded her understanding and climbed in, then slid across the bench seat while he hustled into the house and tucked the phones away.

“No one can hear us?” Asal asked when he returned.

“I hope they can’t. The phones are inside and I pulled the truck battery weeks ago.” He set his palms on the wheel. “I don’t drive it much, it’s too big for getting around in the city, but I like to sit out here. It feels like home.”

She looked around, maybe searching for that same lost feeling of home. “How long have you been in Tashkent?”

“Year and a half.”

“You don’t like it.” Her words came out not as a question, but as a universal truth.

He had spent a good measure of time with cows when he was growing up, certain that a bigger world awaited him, but lately he longed for the company of the Holsteins. “I play God at a visa window every day, what’s not to like? Tell me your story.”

She kicked her sandals to the floor and turned to Nick, folding her legs in front of her. “I am single and I live alone so people assume I am a prostitute. Sometimes landlords demand their rent in trade.”

“You’ve lived this way eleven years?” Nick couldn’t imagine that nightmare, but he understood that there are times when the only way to escape the cold is to burrow down beneath it.

“I am not proud of what I have had to do to survive,” Asal said, “nor am I ashamed that I have survived.”

He might have reached out to her, but saw how that would have been a greater comfort to him, than to her. “What sort of trouble are you in?”

“There was an apartment owner named Ravshan. After I had been at his place a week he started coming around, touching.”

“I’m sorry—”

She held up her hand to silence him. “Men have forced themselves on me. Even the police, when they found me asleep in my car one night. Ravshan tried and I ran the screwdriver into him.” Nick’s breath caught in his chest and Asal reduced her voice. “He understood before he died that he was a pig.”

“Jesus. What did you do after that?”

“I have not told this story except to Laziz,” she said. “I dragged him to the street like garbage and left him there with his face in the gutter.”

“No one suspected you?”

“Everyone suspected me.” Her grin was tight, sardonic. “His wife came the next day and threw me out, but not before bringing the police. She told them I was his . . . Do you know our expression ‘neighborhood wife’?” Nick said that he did. “They harassed me for months,” Asal continued, “but proved nothing. Laziz told them I was with him that night.”

“He took quite a risk for you.”

She leaned in. “Laziz is homosexual.” Nick nodded. “And sex between men is illegal here.” Again, he confirmed his understanding. “Revealing to police that he enjoys the company of a woman will not harm him.”

Unless his doing so got in the way of a conviction or some other agenda, Nick thought, and he presumed that they offered her a deal to work against him in exchange for her acquittal. “Jesus,” he repeated, and Asal said nothing, just watched him. She hadn’t struck him as religious, so he asked, “Do you even believe in God?”

“Of course.”

Nick chuckled, perplexed by her conviction as much as by the fact that he found humor in anything just now. “You seem so sure.”

“A cruel god is the only explanation I can find for my life. A god who keeps us for his personal entertainment. Are you going to help me?”

“Would your god find that entertaining?” He was smiling and she kicked him, but rested her foot against his thigh. “I can’t get you to America,” he said.

“I see.” She looked out the passenger window as though they were cruising down a rural Virginia highway, taking in the sights.

“But you don’t need to go to there. You just need to get out of here.”

She spoke at the windshield. “I can’t go anywhere unless you give me information that I can exchange for an exit stamp. I am not asking for that.”

“It’s an hour and a half to the border.” He pointed to the rear seat. He’d have to work on the frame, but she would fit behind it. “The Uzbeks can’t check me and the Kazakhs won’t bother.” Nick had been through the crossing at Yalama twice and knew that they fast-tracked cars with diplomatic plates. “I can get you out if you think you can start over in Kazakhstan.”

“Why would you do this for me? I would have given them any information I got from you.”

He wasn’t so sure of that. “I came here looking for an adventure and I think I just found it.”

“You are too trusting.” She sat up beside him and laid a palm to his knee. “God is going to have fun with you.”

“Your god might. Your god is a bitter old woman who sits back cackling as a cat torments a mouse, and then drowns the cat when she gets bored.”

Asal erupted into laughter. “If God were a woman, she would have left me to die years ago.” She pushed him to get him moving.

Nick smiled with her. “Why would she do that?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know if I am the cat or the mouse, but you have witnessed yourself that women do not find me entertaining.” She reached for her sandals. “Are we going to repair that starter motor?”

“I’ll go get my tools,” Nick said. He left her to strap her sandals and turned back to the house.

Originally from Modesto, California, John Etcheverry has spent 20+ years immersed—in one capacity or another—in the cultures and stories of the former Soviet Union. He lives with his family in Tbilisi, where he enjoys the wine, tries to stay clear of Georgian drivers, and is polishing his novel If God Were a Woman.

Dotted Line