Smooth Jazz by Mariah Marconi

The man has been driving for 5 months now, traversing the cobbled roads of this ancient city in one of those Melex cars designed to carry up to 8 tourists on historical pilgrimages throughout the city. He knows this city, or at least the beautiful bits of it, better than his native Odessa; can rattle off each of the audio recordings like religious mantras; has learnt, in the past 5 months, more English vocabulary than 6 years in public school— words like rampart and dynasty and façade and desecration. If he ever used these terms in his native language, he cannot remember them but, for this life, he keeps them in his mouth, rolls them off the tongue when necessary.

He works for one of those companies which offers foreign tourists private excursions – mobile audio guides in German and French and English and Spanish – whatever you want. And he, the great DJ of this little floating world, must keep his driving perfectly timed, ensure that the dialogue remains synced with the view.

The 60 minute trip is 200 zl for a group of 4 or less, 50 zl per person for a larger group. The company takes an 80% cut of whatever he makes and charges a flat rate of 100 zl per day to rent the Melex. It’s a shit job, he knows— a waste of his education, three years in university and an unfinished economics degree; an embarrassment to his mother, a woman who now boasts two great disappointments – a deadbeat husband who could never hold a job and a coward son who ditched both his education and his country. But it’s enough to pay for a small rented room in a stuffy flat on the 5th floor of one of those old communist blocs, which he shares with two other foreigners— a young student from Edinburgh with a compulsive habit for counting the world in sets of threes and an insomniac from Madrid who goes about the flat, obsessively setting alarm clocks in the event that, tonight, she might fall asleep. Without a common tongue, none of them speak to each other.

In truth, he has learned to appreciate the work, learned to find comfort in the drudging monotony of the same words and same places and same paths, repeated every day. He immerses himself in the sameness of everything and in this way, he does not have to think about everything he’s left behind, about the sister who still calls to ask, over a scratchy connection, when he’s coming home, about the life which never quite panned-out. But there are, of course days when this repetitiveness isn’t enough, when his mind still comes whirling back to a place almost 800 km away and in such moments, he returns to economics. He zips the Melex’s plastic against the winter, turns the heating up, and cruises through the city passenger-less, Dave Brubeck radiating from his speakers. He listens to the whole album, all 38 minutes and 36 seconds. In his own little private island of warmth and jazz, he quizzes himself on short-run productivity curves and aggregate production and frictional unemployment— words he never bothered learning in any language other than his own— until spilling from his mouth, these words start to sound like poetry, until he feels like someone with a future again.

And so now, knowing all the necessary data about this man encased, for the moment, in a haven travelling 20 km per hour down cobbled city streets, what is the opportunity cost of his time spent pretending to live in a world he can no longer touch?

Mariah Marconi is an American writer currently living and working in Wroclaw, Poland.