Devrim The Communist
Ali A. Ünal
Distracted by the approaching footsteps, the captains halted their reckoning and looked up. We all turned to the gravel path. A lanky boy, his hands in his pockets, was walking toward us. He didn’t seem to be bothered by the intense surveillance. He stopped just outside our circle and surveyed the crowd as though he were searching for a specific someone. Only the nearby river was making a sound. Moving from one boy to another, his eyes found me, and he winked. My mouth went cold as I felt the collective glare of almost twenty boys and their captains and even their families on me. Devrim had never shown any interest in playing soccer, let alone interacting with any of us. His unannounced appearance made little sense; his acknowledgment of me, even less. I tightened my grip on my goalie gloves, fearing that my chances of getting picked for the soccer game were all but gone now. Even the captains looked unsure of themselves for the first time.
In our small village-no-one-knew, before every soccer match, the captains did a short ritual called reckoning to split the boys evenly into two teams. The son of the headman and the son of the wealthiest family—always the captains—faced each other as if to duel, only to take small steps toward one another, chanting: Who reckon, I reckon; Wait for me, I’ll beckon at each step. They placed their feet sideways in order to adjust the gap and try to step on the other’s foot first. The winner picked the best player, after which the captains took turns picking the rest of the boys based on this unwritten, yet rigid order: the friends of the captains, the boys whose fathers owned land, the boys whose fathers were otherwise rich, the boys whose fathers were a member of the Party, the boys whose fathers were sober, and so forth, until only two boys remained who would then be made to play goalies.
Devrim had broken this routine. I feared the boys would beat him if he didn’t leave the pitch of his own volition. I couldn’t help but relish this awkward moment of disorder while Devrim idled there, outside the circle we’d formed, with no hint of conceding his ground. He was so inconvenient and so forward that I thought he would make a mean striker. The lull was getting absurd, though. Ömer would arrive soon, at noon. The captains, after exchanging a brief glance, continued where they left off, with the other boys slowly turning their attention back to the bidding. The reckoning was on again. The son of the headman stepped on the foot of the son of the Aga, and the bidding war began.
In ten minutes, boys had been picked and distributed into two squads. Devrim and I were the only boys left standing. While the teams spread out to the pitch to warm up, the captains stayed back, whispering between themselves about what to do with us. Devrim still hadn’t moved an inch. His hands in his pockets, he was now watching the warm up. I put on my goalie gloves in anticipation. I felt sorry for Devrim because playing goalie without gloves was going to hurt his hands.
“Screw them,” I heard one captain say, to the confident approval of the other. They gave me one last cold glare before joining the others on the pitch. They randomly picked two boys among them to play goalies, and the match was kicked off without us. Usually, when I didn’t get picked up, I would go back home and do my homework, or go straight to the town square to wait for Ömer. I stayed because Devrim stayed. He was digging up small stones with his shoe and kicking them around. Instead of the ongoing match, I watched Devrim kick the stones. His game was more fun than that of the twenty-two boys combined. One stone over there, another over here, another rolling down the hill. A larger one landed near my foot. Devrim stopped, looking at me as if he had meant this. I was undecided about what I should do. I was not much of a shooter. Well, I was not much of a keeper, either. I pulled the stone in front of me and kicked it back at him. Halfway through, it veered off course and landed two paces from Devrim. Smiling, he walked up to the stone, prodded it with the nose of his shoe, and kicked it. Again, it landed right near my shoe. I couldn’t imagine what he could do with a real ball if he was this precise with a flat stone.
“Our shoes will get worn out if we kick stones like this,” he said.
I picked up the stone and rubbed it clean on my t-shirt. It was an onyx. I checked my twisted reflection on it and tossed it away. It drew a satisfying arc in the air and fell somewhere around the goalposts. Devrim winked at me once again, turned around, and started toward the hill. I realized I didn’t want to stay with the other boys to watch their boring game. I took off my goalie gloves, walked over to the goalpost to pick up our onyx, stuck it in my pocket, and ran off to follow Devrim. He seemed pleased to have me beside him. We walked side by side without a word, him whistling, me thinking.
His family had been exiled to our village two years ago from the neighboring village because his dad was found to be a communist. You wouldn’t want to be found in our village—the word was reserved for dangerous people and insidious groups. Like every other kid, I kept my distance from Devrim. And yet, there was something mysterious about him that I couldn’t pinpoint. He was like this inappropriate magnet that I couldn’t walk away from. I observed him on the sly. He sat alone at the back of the classroom. After school, he went straight home without interacting with any of us. He did not attend weekend picnics—not that he was ever invited, did not play soccer with us—not that he would ever be selected, and did not barter with our weekly toy truck, Ömer. Even teachers did not fail Devrim lest they had to teach him again. Our village treated his family as though they were a contagious illness, all except for my father, who went out of his way to make small talk with Devrim and his dad. He even encouraged me to befriend Devrim, but I never plucked up the courage to strike up a conversation.
The Toptepe hill was outside the village limits. It had a perfect view of the soccer pitch. We sat down on a patch of earth, leaning our backs against the giant sycamore tree. I didn’t know Devrim wanted to watch the match. The boys seemed friendly from afar, even likable, but their delirious chase after the red ball looked unnecessary from a distance. What a stupid game this was. I raised my right thumb, held it in front of my right eye, closed my left eye, and bingo!—no soccer game to worry about. I should have felt uneasy, sitting with a communist’s son who was the reason I didn’t get picked up. But it was alright.
“Ömer is coming today,” I said.
“I’ll be the first in line to get a ball. What are you getting?”
“I have nothing to barter.”
“Mom promised to give me one of her old pairs of shoes.”
“Should be enough for a ball.”
“You can play with it if you want.”
He didn’t react, not even a lousy grin. I didn’t know how to deal with his silence. I grabbed a stick nearby and started digging. The earth here was smoother than the soccer pitch. Gravel was finer, too, allowing me to work faster. When the hole was deep enough, I thought of placing our onyx inside and closing it off, but for some reason, I didn’t want Devrim to see me doing it. I glanced around as though I was searching for something while putting the onyx inside the small pit covertly. I was so focused on my clandestine activity that I didn’t notice the dark cloud of exhaust gas.
“Isn’t that Ömer?”
Devrim was pointing to the gravel road off the soccer pitch. It was indeed our toy truck. I sprang to my feet so fast that Devrim flinched.
“Why is it so early?” I asked, almost shouting. Devrim, too, was on his feet.
“Look, the boys cut the match short. They are running after it.”
“Now they’ll get all the balls.”
Without waiting for his response, I sprinted down the hill, bouncing like a rabbit over bushes. There was no way I could make it to the square before the other kids, especially considering that I had to go home first to get Mom’s shoes. She wouldn’t let me take them with me to the soccer match lest I lost them on the way. I was furious with Devrim, too, for bringing me here so far from the village square. He caught up with me at the bottom of the hill, looking as anxious and disappointed as I was. We didn’t speak as we dashed through the woods, past the trash bins, over the puddles, to my house.
Mom wasn’t home. Dad had dozed off on the couch. The living room smelled of cheap wine. Even if he were sober, Dad wouldn’t have known where Mom had hidden the shoes—in case Dad might trade them himself, for drinks. I searched the entire house. No luck. I thought of stealing Dad’s lucky goalie gloves, but I was probably too late for the barter, anyway. The boys would get all the balls one way or another. I thought of waking Dad up to say something or shout at him. His drunken snoring was echoing off the walls. It was stupid of me to think I had a chance, shoes or no shoes.
As I made my way outside, I realized that I was clutching the onyx in my hand. Devrim straightened up when he saw me. I put the stone in my pocket without him seeing it and told him I had nothing to barter. He apologized for making me miss Ömer. We headed back to the square to watch the end of the barter. It wasn’t his fault that Ömer showed up early or that Mom always had to play the guardian. It was alright.
While we walked side by side, there were so many questions I wanted to ask him: about his old village, if Ömer visited them as well, his father being a communist, if that made him a communist as well, what a communist was anyway, his father working in İstanbul, his quietness, or what İstanbul was all about. Villagers stopped and gave me stern looks. Some of them wagged their fingers, threatening to tell on me. I imagined Dad would be proud and tell the villagers to mind their own business. Devrim didn’t see any of these mean men and women. He always kept his head down when he walked. If he didn’t see anyone, no one could see him.
“Did you used to play soccer in your village?” I asked.
“More often. Not just Sundays.”
“I bet you were a striker.”
“Me? No, I was a goalie.”
I felt a wave of affection for him. “I know. They make me play goalie, too. It sucks, but at least we get to play.”
He gave me an offended look. “Nobody makes me play goalie. I am a goalie.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am.”
“You mean you like being a goalie?”
“I certainly do.”
The answer was so bizarre that I had to smile. He smiled back. Soon, we were giggling. Devrim was the only boy I’d ever known who played goalie, or who was a goalie, on purpose. Boys preferred scoring goals and working, sober fathers, and non-communist families. There was no victory in saving something or someone else.
“What’s a communist?” I asked. Ömer could be seen parked in front of the marble statue. Two girls were trying to barter for something. The boys were nowhere to be found.
“I guess, someone who likes to save and share,” he said.
“Even a ball?”
“Even a ball.”
All the soccer balls were gone. The bearded man in the cargo area was unfurling the tarpaulin to close off the tailgate. Devrim and I wanted to take one last glance inside.
Nobody knew why or when Ömer had come to our village, and why it did what it did. Some children believed that it had always been there, since the beginning of time, and the whole village was built around our toy truck. Ömer didn’t accept money, neither did it barter with adults. It would accept almost anything for barter, provided that it was of some value: broken umbrellas, old pairs of shoes, rotten rugs, cracked jugs, chairs with three legs, crushed cans, chairs with no legs, even crushed plastic bottles. If it wasn’t furniture or a valuable item, then you had to tell the bearded man who drove the truck a story about your barter item. He’d then decide whether or not it was barterable based on the value of your story.
I was just about to turn back and leave when Devrim pinched my arm. Now I had seen it, too: a pink ball buried among the bartered items. The boys must have missed it. The bearded man locked the tailgate, took his driver’s seat, and told us to back up a little. Ömer’s engine started with a puff of gray smoke. I had nothing to barter. I didn’t have a story, either. Our toy truck was slowly pulling away.
“Hold ooon! Wait!”
It was my drunken father, shouting at the truck’s driver as he lumbered toward me. He was coughing and shouting, all at once. A few village men came out of the coffeehouse to see what the commotion was about. Dad couldn’t make it to us. He stopped to take support from the statue. Devrim and I walked over to him.
“Mom home . . . Go get the shoes . . . I’d bring them meself . . . She won’t trust me no more . . .” There, he smiled widely. “Vixen . . . I love her . . . Haha.”
I don’t know what made me do it, but I turned to Devrim, who stood a few paces behind us. To this day, I can’t tell how I communicated what I wanted. He understood, though. He nodded, turned back and ran off.
“He’ll catch . . . Can’t drive fast . . . On gravel…”
I couldn’t even move a muscle as I watched Dad sit down to take a breather. When he was a kid, he used to have to play goalie too, because his dad was also drunk and poor and nice. He’d bartered for his lucky pair of goalie gloves from Ömer years ago. Sometimes, he’d give me pointers on how to lunge sideways or how to reduce the angle against an attacking striker. It’s all about the geometry, son, not the ball itself, haha. Learn math. How funny it was that we inherited more than genes. Not funny, maybe.
Ömer was indeed going slowly on the gravel path. After making sure Dad was fine, I dashed forward to catch the truck. The bearded man saw me running beside him, but wouldn’t stop. I tried to explain that my best friend Devrim was bringing a pair of old shoes for the pink ball. He kept shaking his head. He had arrived earlier than usual because his schedule was packed; he couldn’t waste another second. I shouldn’t be so sorry because he would be back next week, as he always was.
I had to stop. I couldn’t run anymore. My lungs were protesting for air. I was half depleted, half blind because of the sweat running into my eyes. It was stupid of me to think I had a chance. I would never have a ball of my own, anyway. Dad was panting by the statue. We were goalies by design. Even Ömer didn’t have time to spare. It was alright.
“I got them!” Devrim’s lanky form blurred past me. “Don’t worry, I got this.”
Devrim ran as if he was offended by the gap between himself and the truck. No boy would have chased after a pink ball except for his dumbass. Yet, he did. The truck was about to become a speck in the distance. I couldn’t even tell if it was moving or not, but I knew, somehow, Devrim was closing in on it. I could hear his thunderous plea: “Baaaall, pink baaall!”
I had to slump where I was, or my spleen would burst open. I watched Devrim run, run, and run, forming a cloud of dust behind him. He could grab this chance and leave the village, never to return. Nobody would miss him except for me. The thought calmed me down; he would never leave now that he knew there was someone who would miss him. I waited, and waited, and waited until I saw a pair of plastic shoes fly through the air. A short pause, and then the arc of a pink ball replaced it, landing in Devrim’s learned hands. Ömer reached the asphalt road and sped away.
When the dust settled, Devrim emerged like a rock, on all fours. Even from a distance, I could see his labored breathing, his chest heaving up and down. He could have made a mean striker, but he proved to be a superb keeper as well. Maybe I could try to be a goalie like Devrim or Dad, saving balls that weren’t even mine. What was the point of owning a ball if I wasn’t going to save it?
I got up and walked to him. He must have heard my footsteps because he started making his way to me as well, a victorious smile spreading across his face. When he deemed us close enough, he stopped. We did nothing but breathe for a straight minute. Then he rolled the ball over. I caught it with my right foot and kicked it back at him. He controlled it with the inner side of his shoe and shot it toward me. We were smiling and kicking the ball in our version of reckoning.
I saw Devrim as the lonely boy he was for the first time: there on the gravel road, on the outskirts of our village, clueless, tired, but happy. He handed me the ball with such pride that I was embarrassed to have tried to conceal our stone. He said this was my ball now. His place was closeby. We could get some rest while his mother served us cake and lemonade. If that was okay with me.
It was a scorching day in our small village-no-one-knew when Devrim and I headed to his place, tossing our Makosen-branded pink ball back and forth. Next week, I would barter our onyx for a pair of shiny goalie gloves and gift them to Devrim so that we could save better. The bearded man would listen to the tale behind the onyx, the story of Devrim the Communist, and decide that it was of some value.