The Most Excellent Immigrant

A Short Story Collection (upcoming, still shopping for a publisher).

by Mark Budman

There is a secret that we immigrants never share with the natives: a good immigrant adapts to the new country while the most excellent immigrant makes the new country better.

The recurring theme of the short story collection The Most Excellent Immigrant is the fate, both success and failures, of recent and no so recent immigrants to America, as it’s illustrated in the following examples:

A Diptych Translated from Scratch (first published in The American Scholar), is two parallel stories of love between two couples: a Chinese waitress and her boss and her American boss, and an American man and Russian immigrant woman.

St. Augustine’s Baby Breath is about a medical interpreter searching for an elixir of youth.

In the Titan. An office Romance (first published in London magazine), a Greek Titan works in the office from 9 to 5.

Penelope and her Odysseus is a quest for treasure in Brooklyn.

Gras Haiku tells a postmortem story of a man and his cat.

In Mass Migration, zombies move into the neighborhood.

The opening of Story 1. A Diptych Translated from Scratch

First appeared in American Scholar

The waitress likes her menus to rhyme. She came from China five years ago but already speaks good English. The restaurant manager leans against the wall and listens. The waitress is watching the lone customer, who chews his cheeseburger as if it’s a dish made with $3,600-a-pound European truffles. The waitress is trying to find rhymes for the daily specials. She says, “lamb chops—shoot­ing cops.” Then she whispers something in Chi­nese, and says aloud, “broiled sole—go on parole.”

She does this every day. She has time to spare; no one comes to the restaurant except for a few burly frackers who reek of secret chemical com­pounds and whose bellies quake like the cracked earth. The manager knows not a word of Chinese except for bu hao, which the waitress told him means “no good,” but might as well mean “go, play with yourself, round-eye.”

The manager wonders what forces brought her here to the small hamlet in northern Penn­sylvania by the New York State border, a place full with mostly white folks and Native American names like Susquehanna, Towanda, and Owego. He doesn’t ask. He’s afraid to embarrass her or unearth something unpleasant.

The waitress often spreads cream cheese, strawberry jelly, and honey on a piece of toast with a spoon, and then licks the mixture off with her cherry-colored tongue. Once she left her panties—simple, lilywhite, sensible—in the bathroom. She didn’t do it on purpose, of course. She’d just been absent-minded; the manager was sure of that.

The manager imagines the waitress wrapped in red raw silk, swishing around her slender arms and lean thighs when she dances for her own pleasure. He imagines her sitting in the lotus position, her navel holding an ounce of frankin­cense, needles dotting her back, incense burning, though that image could have come from another civilization—1,001 Nights, maybe? He imagines her smelling not of the kitchen but of plum blos­soms, camellia, and chrysanthemums.

Sitting in his office, a converted broom closet but with a newish glass door so he can see and be seen, he tries to follow her lead and diligently whispers “cream” and “dream” or “eggs” and “begs.” That’s as far as he can go. He checks the online thesaurus on his office computer—Windows XP, duh!— for a synonym for “porcelain,” but he can’t find a better word to describe her skin. After all, his degree is in anthropology and women’s studies.

Unlike the waitress, whose name you will never learn, my love shares her name with the protagonist of Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. Like the 20th-century Russian woman, she also danced with the devil at a ball in Moscow.

“The devil wore a red cape,” Margarita says, sitting in my favorite leather chair, her knees locked modestly beneath her short dress. After only three months in America, she speaks Eng­lish well, though her Russian R’s are still rolling inside her mouth.

“And horns. He was a major in FSB. That is Federal Security Service, yes? It replaced the KGB. He, what’s the word, propositioned me. He said poshli ebatsya. I ran away.”

I shake my head. I’m not a linguist. I’m a lowly bank manager, though I work at the Bank of America, which impressed Margarita a lot. I don’t know what poshli ebatsya means. I can’t even repeat it. But I want to be a master of tongues, and nothing will stop me.

“It means let us have sex,” Margarita says. “But in bad words.”