Lectura Avanzada en Inglés No. 2


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The Shopkeeper

It’s a gloomy Sunday evening in the city. The crowds have disappeared as people head home to enjoy the last bit of their weekend in front of the television. Goran looks out of his shop window at the people hurrying past with their umbrellas shielding them from the rain. It has been over 10 years since he moved to New York from Paris. He can’t believe how lucky he is to be here. New York, where anything is possible.

Most of the shops have closed for the day. Goran has decided to keep his open a while longer. You never know. There are always those last few customers who realize at the last moment that they haven’t picked up the Sunday paper yet. The news is old compared to what you can get online but they can’t do without the discount coupons for the following week. Of course, on a day like this, there’s always the soaking wet couple that comes bursting in wanting to buy a couple of Goran’s overpriced umbrellas. Besides, he feels unusually happy today; just happy to be alive. No harm enjoying his time alone for another hour or so before he goes home to his family. Business has been so great, he wonders if he should bother to open his shop tomorrow. Why not just stay home, help get the kids off to school, maybe cook a little something for the family?

Ah ! The family. He never imagined life could be so good again. The war in Bosnia had changed his life forever. Answering the draft to report for duty was the biggest mistake of his life. The Bosnian Serb Army was no place for him. He really had nothing against Muslims or Croats. It took him a month to summon up the courage to disobey orders to ‘cleanse’ neighborhoods in Sarajevo and the surrounding towns of non-Serbs. He spent three months in a camp with ‘POWs’ and ‘traitors’ with barely any food, water or sanitation. Prisoners were frequently beaten, tortured and even killed. It took him and a friend 2 weeks to figure out an escape plan. His friend stumbled during the getaway falling victim to the dogs and giving Goran precious time to get away. He has no idea if his friend survived.

It was a long, hard journey across at least three different countries but he finally reached Paris. His relatives were overjoyed to see him, but life in France was hard, even for them. Living with them for an extended period of time just wouldn’t be fair. Unemployment in France was high. Jobs for brand new immigrants, especially for those with a limited knowledge of the French language, were almost nonexistent. By then, atrocities committed in Bosnia mostly by the Bosnian Serb army and paramilitaries began to make headlines all over Europe and America. Then, on his way home one night after a grueling day of looking for work, he was attacked by five North African youths who beat him up after realizing that he was a Serb from Bosnia. One of them had probably recognized his accent after overhearing him ask for directions in broken French. They seemed friendly at first, asking him questions and empathizing with what he had been through. Big mistake! They apparently had strong feelings about the atrocities committed against their Muslim brothers. There was no way he could continue living in France. He had received a letter from his brother a week ago, saying that Goran was welcome to stay with him in New York and start a new life there. A new life; a new start. That’s what he needed.

“All that seems like a dream now” thought Goran looking around his little convenience store. “Two wars in the Balkans, the European Union, an African-American in the White house, but best of all, my new life.” His little shop in midtown Manhattan offered customers the best sandwiches in the neighborhood. He married Milica, the best thing that had ever happened to him. She had given him two wonderful kids. His son Kristijan, 12 and Natalija, 10. “What did I do to deserve such good kids?” he wondered. “They study hard and do well in school. They really must go on to college and do more than just work in a convenience store. I should spend more time talking to the kids, playing with them, taking them out” Goran thought “The shop just takes up so much of my time. But now business is good and I have enough money saved up. I can afford to close a little earlier and maybe take the family out for a nice dinner. Milica is such a great wife and mother. She deserves so much more. Perhaps I should pick up some flowers on the way home. Yes, she does miss me. She doesn’t say it but I can see it in her eyes as she walks me to the door in the morning and hands me my coat. That’s it, I’m closing up for the day. Things are going to be different from now on.” Ching! Goran hears the little bells chime as someone walks in to the shop.

“I’m closing” says Goran. “Can you come back tomorrow?”

“I was just hoping for... a cup of fresh coffee” replies the stranger apologetically.

“Don’t worry” replies Goran with a polite smile “I’ll get you a fresh cup. Would you like some cookies with it?”

“No, that’s ok” replies the stranger “just the coffee will be fine. It’s very kind of you to stay open a few more minutes for me.”

“No problem, if you had asked for a sandwich, I would have had to say no. I’ve already packed up all the food for the night. You’re lucky I still have some fresh coffee left. Do you take cream and sugar?”

It’s very kind of you all the same. Just sugar please.”

“Do you live in the neighborhood?” asks Goran, wondering if the stranger could become a regular at his shop. “He couldn’t be older than thirty” Goran thought, observing the stranger. “His accent sounds American with a trace of... I’m not sure, but it sounds familiar.”

“No, I live in New Jersey” replies the stranger looking directly at Goran. “Where are you from... originally I mean.”

“I am from Croatia. I moved here during the early 90s when the war started” replies Goran. That was his prepared response to anyone he didn’t know well.   

“Croat? Really? I would have guessed Bosnian Serb” replies the stranger still looking directly at Goran.

“Why would you think that?” asks Goran surprised. “Are you from Croatia?”

“No, Bosnia” replies the stranger studying Goran’s expression. “I moved here a long time ago but I spent part of my childhood there.”

“Oh, I guess you’ve  been here a long time. You sound like you grew up here. I hope you and your family got out in time.” Goran begins to feel a little uneasy but tries to conceal it with a polite smile “Here’s your coffee. Have a good evening and please stop by again. I have to close up now but maybe we can chat a bit longer next time.”

The stranger silently walks over to the door and turns the lock, locking the door from the inside. “You really don’t recognize me, do you? Well, why would you? I’m sure it was all in a day’s work back then. There must have been hundreds of us; thousands maybe?”

Goran’s mind flashes back to that day in the subway in Paris when the young men assaulted him. He starts to take deeper breaths as his heart starts to beat faster. “I’m not sure what you mean. Do we……..do we know each other?”

“Know each other?“ replies the stranger with a sarcastic smile. “Let me refresh your memory. Višegrad, Bosnia, 1992. You ransacked and burned down our family home, you and your thugs. Why? What did we ever do to you? I was ten at the time but my childhood was over after that. My sister and I managed to escape alive but the rest of our family including my four-year-old sister were killed in the massacre.”

“I think you have me confused with someone else. Please leave or I’ll call the police. I really have no idea what you mean” replies Goran, his voice trembling a bit.

“I could never forget your face; ‘Goran the sadistas you were known in East Bosnia back then. My sister and I lived with the trauma of that day all these years; almost 18 years. My sister committed suicide last year. She could no longer live with the nightmares of what happened to her and all those thousands of other women. I paid close attention to the trials at the Hague hoping to see you there or at least hear your name mentioned. And then three weeks ago, I recognized you in the subway, sitting there with your wife and two children, chatting, smiling not a care in the world. Do they know who you really are? I’ve been following you since then. You’ve done quite well for yourself here, considering you are responsible for war crimes. Oh, don’t worry, I mailed your family a letter with pictures to explain. We wouldn’t want them to think that their father or husband was killed by some random psycho, would we?”

“Please, you know I have a family” says Goran, raising his hands, his voice shaking. “I swear, I don’t know you or your family. I have had nothing to do with any atrocities. You have me confused with someone else. Goran is a common name. People tell me all the time how much I look like...”

Goran barely even heard the gunshot. He was too focused on the stranger’s face to notice what was in his hand. One minute he was slowly reaching for the phone, the next minute he was lying bleeding on the floor, a pool of blood accumulating near him. BANG! Another shot and Goran hears the stranger hit the ground hard. He looks around and tries to get up but he can’t move. He begins to feel the excruciating pain of a gunshot wound to the abdomen. There’s nothing he can do but lie there and wait for help, if it comes.

He tries to remember what happened in 1992 before he finally deserted. It’s all a blur to him now. “All those survivors; would they ever have a normal life again?” he wondered. “The shooter said he was ten? Why didn’t his face look familiar?” Goran strains to remember everything he had tried so hard to forget as he starts to lose consciousness. “I HAVE to hang on” he decides resolutely staring up at the ceiling.

He begins to think of his family. “Milica must be warming up dinner thinking I’ll be home any minute. I love watching her serve dinner while we all sit around the table and talk about our day. I suppose I will have to close the shop for a while and spend more time with the family. I wonder how long it will take me to heal. Did they really call me ‘Goran the sadist’ in eastern Bosnia? Surely there were others who were as bad or worse? It was war, and I was just following orders, but why did I do it with so much enthusiasm at first? If I don’t make it to the hospital in time, I wonder if Milica will take over the shop. The kids must go to college. They will be so much more than I ever was. Will I ever get a chance to explain that letter to them? Would they ever understand?” He closes his eyes and a tear rolls out and hits the floor.  “Would they ever forgive me?  I’m sorry... I’m so sorry...”


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