from Salvation and Other Disasters

by Josip Novakovich

A while back, in the Croatian town Nizograd, Ivan, ten, and Tomo, eight, went out into the streets in a snowstorm because they had heard that Coca-Cola had arrived. The rumor had spread around Nizograd in whispers, shouts, and the veracity of the news was disputed at the street corners near bullet-riddled buildings with peeling mortar. Photographs of glistening mouths with dazzling white teeth had heralded Coca-Cola as tremendously refreshing. Forget apple cider, plum cider, apple juice. Humans had made a drink that God should like to drink. JFK had drunk nothing but Coca-Cola.

In front of Hotel Slavia stood a white truck loaded with curvaceous bottles in the form of hand grenades. Crowds gathered and gazed at the precious reddish darkness, resembling the darkness of breathless venous blood. The boys, Ivan and Tomo, crawled on their knees through melting snow, between the legs of adults. Like two dogs off the leash they sniffed quickly. Ivan had heard Coca-Cola was coming, but he did not believe it. He had waited for Christ for years and years, and Christ was not on the clouds yet. But the Coca-Cola was there in the snow.

"They are going to start selling it next week," said a voice. "First they need to see whether it's real."

"What does it taste like?" Tomo whispered into Ivan's ear, and Ivan said, "I cannot tell you right now."

"Why not?"

"It's a state secret."

"But everybody's going to know how it tastes. It will be sold next week!"

"That's doubtful," said Ivan. "The drink is reserved for the Mayor and his guests. Maybe we'll even see Tito in our town!"

Late that night the boys tiptoed to the hotel yard, and stared at the truck through the cracks between the planks of wood in the fence. With trepidation, they crawled beneath the fence, grabbed a box of Coca-Cola, and rushed home.

"Let's drink right now!" Tomo said.

"No, not yet. You are supposed to drink it with ice. Without ice it doesn't work."

"But it's cold enough!"

"No, it has to be icy. We'll leave them in the snow overnight."

"But why not pour it into a cup, and put some icicles into the Coca-Cola? See, there is enough ice!" Tomo pointed to the roof of the house--icicles hung like straight transparent mammoth teeth. Tomo cracked one from the roof, broke it into pieces and chewed them.

"Don't do that, your teeth will crack," said Ivan.

"Please, let me drink Coca-Cola! I have the ice!"

"No, the ice has to come out of Coca-Cola. You mustn't mix outside ice with it."

"But why not?"

"If you do, it won't be real. There'll be plain water in it."

The bottles were lined up in the snow. Ivan and Tomo watched the bottles, shedding flashlight over them, as if over war prisoners--imprisoned little Americans whose caps soon would be twisted off and brains drunk. They shivered, partly from the cold, partly from the thrill, the cosmopolitan thrill. You need not go to America to feel like an American; just drink Coke with ice, the Eucharist with the blood and the flesh, the wine and the wafer, of the United States of America, the land that touches the Moon.

After midnight when Ivan seemed asleep, Tomo stole out of the room and went barefoot into the snow. But Ivan heard him and caught him just as he was about to touch a bottle. Ivan tied him to his bed, so that Tomo was now like a dog on the leash. Like a sad dog, Tomo squealed, until he fell asleep.

In the morning Ivan untied him, and they rushed out. The bottles had burst, and icy, light red Coca-Cola, like fresh arterial blood in the shape of the bottles, stood there, slanted. The boys separated the bits of glass from the coke.

Tomo moaned.

"Shut up," Ivan said.

"Why, how are we going to drink it now? It's all ice!"

Tomo couldn't wait. He put the Coke ice into a pot and was about to place the pot on the stove.

"Don't do that. If the Coca-Cola melts too fast, it will lose its flavor."

Several hours later with tears of impatience in his eyes, finally allowed to drink, Tomo gulped liquid Coke and chewed ice at the same time, with fear, as if he would be transubstantiated at the end of the cup. At first Tomo felt nothing except the icy anesthesia in his lips and tongue. But as the contracting tart taste reached in, he spat it all out on the floor. "Why, this is cough medicine!"

Ivan chewed slowly and gulped, his eyes closed, and his face twisted into an expression of beatitude, as if the inner certainty of salvation sweetly permeated his cheeks and eyelids. And then he coughed, shuddering. And he coughed so much that a doctor was called in.

"Yup," said the doctor. "The boy's got it again!" And that winter Ivan had a more acute bronchitis than any year hitherto. He stayed in bed for two weeks, reading, and Tomo served him a glass of Coca-Cola every six hours.

Josip Novakovich is a fiction writer and essayist. Born in Croatia, he is currently an assistant professor of English at the University of Cincinnati. His published work includes Yolk, Apricots from Chernobyl, and Fiction Writer's Workshop, and many of his stories, essays, and poetry have appeared in DoubleTake, the Threepenny Review, Ploughshares, the New York Times Magazine, among others, and in three Pushcart Prize anthologies and Best American Poetry 1997. He is the winner of a 1997 Whiting Writers' Award, an Ingram Merrill Award, the Richard Margolis Prize for Socially Important Writing, and a NEA Fellowship for Fiction Writing. Novakovich has a B.A. from Vassar College, a Masters in Divinity from Yale University, and a Masters in English/Creative Writing from the University of Texas. He lives in Blue Creek, Ohio, with his wife and two children.

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The Blue Moon Review, All Rights Reserved.


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