It was a cold and windy morning in Batumi when I crawled out the overnight train from Tbilisi wearing a jacket too thin for the weather. I walked across town, which was gloomy and unlit, across streets full of dogs and puddles to the only hostel I knew of, a disheveled building with a leaky roof where I rented a bed in a dorm room and fell asleep.
Around noon someone creaked the door open and a sword of light cut across the room and woke me. The silhouette of a man wearing a trench coat stood in the doorway. When my eyes adjusted I saw he had shaggy hair and was wearing a purple backpack.
He walked over and tossed his pack under the bed next to mine, then lay face down on his pillow, leaving the door wide open, the winter air sighing in. I was too tired and cold to get up and close it. I just left it open. The muffled light that came through the clouds into the courtyard was beautiful in a way and I lay for a long time enjoying it, letting the cold air blow over me.
In the afternoon I wandered around for a few hours. Batumi was not a pretty town during the off-season. Everything was shut down and boarded up and there was fog in the air and it felt like the people in the streets were all giving me dirty looks.
The Black Sea, which bordered the north of town, was moody and casting grey waves against a beach of rocks, which crackled when it sucked them back. Two bedraggled gypsies roamed the shoreline, drifting between piles of flotsam, which they poked around in searching for god knows what.
I sat there for a long time, shivering, watching cargo ships sink into the horizon, their horns moaning, on their way towards the Ukraine. Batumi, I thought, was the perfect place to write a novel about vampires.
I returned to the hostel before sundown and talked the proprietor into renting me a heater for the night. Then I crawled into bed, fully clothed and in mittens, to sip from a little flask of vodka I’d bought in the street. I opened Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which suited the lugubriousness of this place, and began to read.
An hour later the man walked in, his leather trench coat dribbled with sleet, his hair all disheveled, as though he often reached up and grabbed it and left it grabbed. He shook the rain off his coat and tossed it on the bed.
“Is it difficult to travel with that thing?” I asked, nodding towards the coat. “Looks cumbersome.”
“It’s a zapper,” he said. He said zapper as though the name explained everything.
“You know? A zapper? Where are you from?”
“And you don’t know what a zapper is? Maybe you’re too young.”
The zapper reminded me of the long coats old Turkish women wear. I imagined him storming through the streets of Batumi, this zapper flapping behind him like a cape, children and cats fleeing in fear.
He sat down on the bed facing me and opened the little box he’d been carrying. Inside was a birthday cake. He began eating it with a plastic spoon.
“It is your birthday?” I asked.
“I don’t celebrate my birthdays,” he said. “It’s just cake. You want some?”
Why not, I said, setting my book aside. He gouged out a chunk of cake with his spoon and handed it to me on a napkin. I took it and ate it with my bare hands, dropping a little on the blanket.
“You like cake, yeah?”
“I wuv cake,” he said with a full mouth. “I athe a bib meaw waz nigh and haven ee’in a ding all day.” He swallowed. “And I felt like cake so I bought one.”
The cake was about six inches in diameter and was chocolate and had a thick coat of strawberry icing. He ate the whole thing. Then he reclined back, covered himself with his zapper and asked what I’d gotten into today. I told him but he didn’t seem to be listening.
“Myself I’m a night owl,” he interrupted. “I usually don’t get up until late in the afternoon.”
After that he didn’t say anything for a while. He just lay there, staring at the wall. I thought he’d fallen asleep and went back to reading. I was at a point in the novel where the protagonist and his son are being chased by cannibals.
“I think I’m going to head up to the casino if you want to come along,” he said suddenly, lifting out of bed. He threw on his zapper and slicked back his rebellious hair, which immediately flared up again.
“I’m not a gambler,” I said.
“Suit yourself. I’m not going for the gambling, I’m going for the girls. They have some pretty cheap whores up there.”
“Not your thing?”
“I was here a few years ago,” he said, fiddling with his zipper. “Back then Batumi was full of beautiful Russian broads, but nowadays all you have is these Georgian girls. Cheap but shitty. All the Russians have moved on to Turkey and Europe.”
“You think Russians are better looking than Georgians?” I asked.
I’d never been to Russia but thought Georgian women were gorgeous.
“I know they are. From experience, man. But let me tell you something, the most beautiful girls in the world are in Belarus. I don’t know why, but every broad in that country is stunning. And cheap. And kind-hearted too, the kind of girl you’d want to take home if she weren’t, you know.”
He sat back down and we chatted for a bit. His name was Farhad and he was in his late 30s and had been traveling for the last year. From the sound of it the only places he’d really traveled were Eastern Europe and Russia. The only activity he mentioned was sleeping with prostitutes. Back in the US, where he had lived from his childhood until his early 30s, he had been a day-trader and claimed to have made enough money to live on for the rest of his life. But even if he blew it, he added, his father was a doctor and there was a generous inheritance coming his way.
When I woke the next morning he was lying in bed, fully-clothed, his zapper over his face. Even his shoes were still on.
I wandered around town much as I did the day before. I couldn’t find anything interesting to do. I sat on the shore again for a few hours, reading and drinking vodka. When I returned in the evening Farhad was still sleeping. As I crawled into bed he jumped awake like someone had slapped him.
“What time is it?” he asked, bewildered.
“Woah. I just slept for… 14 hours. I didn’t get in until five last night.”
He got up and stumbled around the room for a while, then put on his zapper and went out without saying goodbye. He returned thirty minutes later with another birthday cake.
“All the restaurants are closed,” he explained.
He ate it quietly, using the spoon from last night, which he’d wrapped in a napkin and kept under his bed. He didn’t offer me any.
“Want to talk?” he asked when he was done.
I closed my book and sat up. He began talking and it was quickly clear that he wasn’t much interested in anything I had to say. I got the impression that he hadn’t had a conversation in months and needed someone to unload on.
First he told me about his exploits the previous evening. He told me he’d slept with a blond 18-year-old who wasn’t very good because she was inexperienced and had just lay there and at one point had even started crying. He talked of other young prostitutes, especially the Belorussians, and of how much he hated the United States and never wanted to return, and of how cold it was in Russia. Then he began telling stories.
His stories were discursive and diachronic and hard to follow. They would lift slowly, like waves, building and building but just before the climactic crash they would suddenly evaporate and we would be somewhere else, in a new story, and I would have no idea how we’d gotten there.
We started out in Bulgaria, which he described very theatrically, with lots of facial contortions and hand movements, and before I knew it we had wandered into Iran, where his family was originally from. I followed him through Tehran and Tabriz and around the ruined metropolises of ancient Persia and through colorful bazaars and for a moment I drifted into my imagination and found myself in a great emerald city not unlike that in The Wizard of Oz, but with flying carpets and palaces of lapis lazuli and other elements pilfered from 1001 Nights, and I was lost in there for awhile, and then I joined him again in Tehran, where he guided me through a grand and illustrious mansion full of servants, a mansion he claimed that his family had owned before the revolution, a mansion that had been taken from them because they were Bahai.
I had never been to Iran. Farhad made it sound like the most romantic and dangerous place on the planet. He’d been there briefly, a few years ago, to obtain his birth certificate, and said that Iranian women were the second-most beautiful in the world. Second only to the Belorussians. For a Westerner like myself, however, it would be impossible to ever sleep with an Iranian girl. Well, not impossible, he corrected himself, but if I were ever successful I would be killed.
“Who would kill me?” I asked.
After that Farhad began talking about the end of the world. According to him, it was certain to take place within two years. Iran had already stockpiled over 200 nuclear weapons. They kept them in underground bunkers whose location they were continually shifting to befuddle Israeli spies. He said “nookyooler” instead of “nuclear”. They (Iran) had also already transferred a number of these warheads to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
“How did they get them there?”
That was unimportant. What was important was that the leaders of Iran were eager to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. This was as inevitable as the sun rising, he said, and Israel knew it. They (the Israelis) were already building underground colonies in Patagonia because of this fact.
Iran, however, did not want to be the first to strike. They wanted to be provoked by Israel. What would happen was that within two years Israel would attack Hezbollah and Iran would fire nukes at Israel in retaliation. This would wipe out the whole country and set off a chain-reaction of nuclear weapons exploding in every major city in the world, especially in the US, which would be destroyed almost completely. Only rural communities in places like Alaska or Montana would escape the devastation.
Then, after most of humanity had been killed off, years of war and terror would follow. Roving bands of cannibals and other mutated half-humans would have to compete for the scarce resources and ordinary humans like himself would have to kill or be killed. He would probably even have to become a cannibal, as all vegetation would shrivel up beneath the dark cloud of atomic dust that would envelope the heavens and block out the sun.
His descriptions made me wonder whether he had borrowed Cormac McCarthy while I was out.
Anyhow, it was my choice whether I wanted to believe it, he said, but the signs were everywhere. Even the daughter of the granddaughter of some Bahia prophet was already actively encouraging all Bahai to leave the United States because of these signs.
He took a bathroom break and lit a cigarette and went on. After the ten years of terror would come the period of lesser terror, in which the sun would return and plants would grow again and the cannibals would stop roving the desolate countryside and settle down to begin farming and building cities, but this was not the end. Once again people would begin building armies and this would eventually culminate in a series of race wars, from which non-white people would emerge victorious. After that religion would be abolished and people of different races would intermarry en mass and peace would reign throughout the earth. All of this was predicted by a Bahai prophet long ago, he said.
I was speechless.
“And all of this will begin sometime in the next two years?”
He didn’t answer. Instead he told me about how he’d recently called up his brother, who lives in New York, and told him what he just told me. He had made his brother promise that if Israel attacks Hezbollah he would flee New York immediately and relocate to Canada, one of the only places that might possibly be forgotten in the slew of nuclear attacks.
“He promised me,” Farhad said. “But he still just thinks I’m just talking crazy because I have cancer.”
Terror came into his eyes at the mention of his cancer. He asked for a drink of my vodka.
“How long do you have left?” I asked, handing the vodka over, unsure of whether it was an invasive question. For a moment his cancer made me nervous and I had to remind myself that it wasn’t contagious.
“The doctors say about two years.”
Two years, I thought. The same as the end of the world.
“Maybe you’ll die before it all ends and you won’t have to deal with it,” I said.
I realized immediately that this was in no way comforting. I decided not to say anything else. Farhad sat there quietly for a long time.
“I think I have about a year before I’m too weak to fuck,” he said, standing up. He put on his zapper. “Guess we’ll see.”
He walked out.
I never saw him again.