The Interpreter of Dreams and Maladies, by Mark Budman
with thanks to The London Magazine, which published it first
mono print by Daniel Kabakoff
I. Stick Figures in Paradise
The interpreter of dreams and maladies draws a stick figure with an orange crayon. “This is you,” he explains to his two year old granddaughter. Her mother, the interpreter’s daughter, is nursing the other twin in the bedroom upstairs.
The interpreter draws a smaller stick figure next, in purple. “That’s your kukla. Kukla is a doll in Russian.”
The girl repeats kukla obediently. She points with her finger. “Hair. Hair. Pretty.” She claps.
The stick hair is not quite pretty, but the interpreter never refuses a compliment from any quarters. “Do you want me to draw your sister?”
“No, no, no. Me.”
“How old are you?”
“How old is your sister?”
“But aren’t you twins?”
The interpreter is patient. That’s a part of his job description. He draws another stick figure, identical to the first. They are identical twins, so she won’t be able to tell he cheated. Then he draws a much bigger figure, in black. The figure is mostly bald but has a luxurious moustache. “This is Deda. Grandfather.”
He draws a horizontal line next to the figure. “That’s deda’s gun. To protect you.”
The interpreter’s daughter comes back into the room, and the interpreter goes upstairs to his office, to his paying job. A powerful nor’easter paints the outdoors surreal white. He’s happy he doesn’t need to drive. He’s happy the house still has power. The trees keep losing their limbs to the wind and heavy snow. It’s hard to operate a computer with no juice.
He puts on his headset and smiles into the camera. They trained him how to smile. Sincere and business-like at the same time. His bosses are stick and check on him all the time. Remotely, of course.
“Hi, my name is Alex. My ID number is 555-123456. I’m your Russian video interpreter.”
He wears a business shirt and sweatpants. Since he’s seated at his desk, they only see his top half.
Last night, he watched the Ukrainian national anthem sung in Yiddish, and Katyusha in Chinese, on YouTube. His Facebook handle is “Interrrnationalist.” With three Rs.
Two hours later, he had one of his usual nightmares. He ran through a brick-walled labyrinth. A flight attendant was close on his heels with a Turkish kinjal. She ran fast in spite of her high heels.
In the morning, before playing with the twins, the Interpreter posted an elaborate reflection on his dream on Facebook. He received eight likes, with various emoji, but one female friend called him a misogynist and a creep. Before he was able to reply that some people are dying to be perpetually outraged, and that he feels sorry for them, she unfriended and blocked him.
But now it’s time to work. Some of his patients are recent immigrants and haven’t learned English yet. Some are old timers who have been in this country for ten, twenty years or more. Almost as long as the interpreter himself. They will never learn English.
The doctor tells him the patients’ names and, the interpreter greets them in Russian.
Now, an old female patient is clapping in delight. “The man in the TV knows my name!” She is thin like a stick. Her eyes are as dull as an old butter knife. Her hair is dishevelled. Not pretty.
The interpreter is patient. That’s a part of his job description. He doesn’t want to get fired. At his age, he won’t find another job. He interprets the woman’s words dutifully but only in English: “The man in the TV knows my name!”
The doctor doesn’t laugh. Though young, she looks tired. She might have little kids at home. Her babysitter draws stick figures for them. The babysitter’s thoughts are somewhere else. It’s only a paying job for her.
A couple of hours later, the interpreter returns to the twins. His daughter is long at work, so his wife sits with them. He takes over, letting his wife prepare dinner. They feed the kids together. Food flies all over. Tiny pieces of chicken. Zucchini. Home-made bread. Cheerios. He calls the room the mess hall.
The daughter and her husband come home. The interpreter is relieved of his duties until the morning. He watches Netflix on his computer. Netflix knows his preferences and feeds him with movies about World War II. He should prefer comedies and animation because they are less messy, but can’t help himself. The war movies have a lot of guns. When he was young, he loved to shoot his army-issued AK-47.
Later in the evening, in his bed, the interpreter listens to the howling of the wind. He’s sympathetic. He would howl too if they would leave him outside in such weather. He falls asleep. He dreams about the world inhabited by orange and purple stick figures with pretty hair who eat very neatly and never howl. There are no maladies in this world, no guns, and everyone has anything they need, and there is only one language, so that he can quit his paying job. He likes that. He’s good at drawing, and solving puzzles. They won’t fire him from this job. He smiled in his sleep. He just solved all the world’s problems without firing a single bullet from his stick gun let alone his AK-47.
When we are children, we are afraid of monsters invading our dreams. Eventually, it would look like the monsters stopped coming, but they are only dormant, sleeping in our memory cells. When we turn old, we will know they will return, and we will never wake up, unless we’ll be lucky enough to die facing our loves ones, with our eyes open.
But the interpreter of dreams and maladies is not worried about that. He knows how to keep the monsters under control: he befriends them. He’s practiced this technique since he was bullied at his childhood.
He fancies himself as another re-incarnation of Biblical Joseph. He photoshops his head over a coat of many colors and pastes himself a staff in his hand. In the next pic, his head is attached to a body of a viceroy of Egypt. He wears khat, a cap crown, and a white kilt.
He shows the result to his grand twins. They point to image excitedly. Pretty! Touch! Me too!
He hopes that when they grow up, #MeToo would mean: I’ve also gotten a raise. Or, I’m also promoted. Or, I’m also elected to Congress.
The interpreter is proud of his computer skills. He always learns something new. At the age of two, he discovered that girls’ geometry is different from the boys’. At the age of three, he learned the Cyrillic alphabet. At the age of five, he learned that a fist in the face is painful. At the age of six, he learned the English alphabet. At the age of sixteen, he learned that if you write poetry, girls would like you, and let you create new geometrical figures together. At the age of thirty, he learned that a new language is difficult to acquire when you’re over ten, and that freedom means different things to different people at different times.
He always tries new things.
At the age of twenty, following Winston Churchill, he tried to have a heart. At the age of thirty, still following him, he tried to have a head. At the age of thirty-five, he wrote his first poem in the language that wasn’t his. At the age of forty, the neighbor’s wife, a Mrs. Robinson, was after him at a block party, but he escaped with her holding his beer.
He took his interpreter certification exam at the age of sixty. At that age, people usually administer exams rather than taking them. But he was proud.
He contemplates starting a Facebook page where he would interpret dreams.
Dreamed of climbing up inside a steel pipe? It means, it’ll be raining soon, so beware of falls. Fell of a tall, stone wall and broke your head, and no one can put you together again? You will have eggs for breakfast. Lost in the woods and heard the howling of a wolf? You will buy a Ralph Lauren cape. Easily satisfied with the very best? You read too many Churchill quotations.
This page would be much more popular than his current one, “Politics. Please be Civil.” No one wants to be civil in politics. It’s a painting in black and white, and it’s all screams and rage.
At his day work, he daydreams when he has a rare break. He sees an old man slouching in his office chair, with a headset on his head. He wears a shirt of a single color. The man’s face is lined, as if exposed for years to the Egyptian sun. The man speaks in two languages simultaneously, from the two sides of his mouth. Words of wisdom and words of silliness. That’s what having a heart and the head really means. To be wise but not be afraid of making fun of yourself. To defend your world against the pharaohs and Hitlers, but to be tolerant to the views of others. Joseph and Churchill knew that.
He hopes that the twins will learn it, too. That’s why he’s still here.
Mark Budman is the author of “My Life at First Try” and the editor of Vestal Review magazine.