Blesok no. 27, July-August, 2002
Not a Day without Order
You wake up early, out of habit, that is, not early but just on time. When the other workers do. You don’t wonder whether you got that habit from boarding school, the army or the office. The main thing is, whenever you go to bed, whether you slept enough or not, sometimes even after sleeping too much, you wake up at the same time, as if with an alarm clock. But now, as a pensioner, it bothers the others that go to work. Maybe they don’t mind you, but you are under foot – in the bathroom, kitchen, and hallway. The younger employed ones at home don’t understand why you have to occupy space in the bathroom the same time they do, using up the hot water for the shower, blocking the shaving mirror, or lining up your coffee pot first. Where’s that old fart hurrying off to, where’s he going to earn his bread, when nobody’s asking him to sign in at the start of the day?
But the inertia of habit is sometimes even stronger than the will to live. Every pensioner is aware of it in a way, and therefore, maybe, the weaker your will to live is, the more persistent you are in keeping to the habits of staying alive. Pensioner-intellectual, or at least the literate pensioner has an even greater motive to be like that, because it is perfectly clear to him that now is the time to place a crown on his life’s achievement, that is, to finish it off in a becoming and dignified way.
So, when the young go to work, it’s your turn. As grandma holds the grandsons and granddaughters on their special potties, you carry yesterday’s garbage to the closest container and say good morning to the neighbors who are up. Then you take a grandchild in each hand and take them to the kindergarten, on the way telling them the names of the neighborhood dogs, and explaining to them the difference between a sparrow and a blackbird. The children pass the spectrum test based more on the color of cats than on the color of clouds, and they are especially interested in houses were there are children younger than they and the shops that have sweeter chewing gum.
On the way back from the kindergarten you stop at the store to get some bread and milk, or salt and oil, or tea and sugar. Then, as you drink your weak coffee with grains of saccharine, you put together the shopping list. Everything has to be written down in order, just as it goes into the bags, the potatoes or onions on the bottom, the peppers or tomatoes on top, and not the other way around. And what is not on the list, will not go into a bag. Improvisations are possible with parsley, celery, and flowers only. The market list must strictly adhere to market principles, and it cannot be like some loose agreement.
One you lose it, in the middle of the market, maybe, or when taking out a handkerchief or some change, you don’t have a clue how to shop that day. Man has one mind, not two – well, one for home, and another for the market. In this quandary, and in the crowd, you meet, or better to say, collide, with an old school friend, now a retired surgeon. He has finished his shopping and, completely happy, lugs his full bags home. What’s the worry? he wonders, take my list. All women order the same thing: carrots, beets, and apples, no mistake here. And after talking about the high prices, and low pension, in one breath he tells you the joke about the dead man, how they couldn’t cross his arms on his belly button because they too stretched out from carrying bags. What do you think he was? A pensioner, my brother, just like us. You smile sourly, still thinking it’s funny and you want to tell this joke to others, and you take his shopping list, forced to do as he did. But despite everything, it goes wrong, because you have to return afterwards – as always, you’ve forgotten something: parsley, celery, or flowers.
Be that as it may, while you went to the market and back, the breakfast break passed. When you were going to work, you would not just glance at the newspaper, but also read it, not only read it but also study it – from the commentaries to the crossword puzzle, most thoroughly, with your pencil in your hand. Now you collect the newspaper pages from all the rooms and sit down to put them together, to make a newspaper out of them again. And then you see that the crossword puzzle has already been filled in, with different handwriting, that the recipes and the cosmetics advice have been clipped with small fingernail scissors, and some of the sad obituaries have been checked with a black marker. Then you sit in the old armchair, put your glasses on, and lift your feet, propped up by one cushion for the left kidney and one for the right, one horizontal for your lower back, and another vertical for your spondylitis; you stabilize your brain and your high blood pressure, and, as soon as you open the newspaper, your eyelids drop.
In that shallow sleep, like in dark mud, the large headlines about events mingle with the small intimate fish. Like in a store with its shutters closed, cockroaches, rats, and bats come out from dark corners and fill the stage with their vampire dances. An editor-in-chief offers you a column, in exchange for your soul, for six months. A minister gives you an advisor’s post, not to advise him, but to lure others with wrong advice. An MP promises you an extra month’s pension, providing you agree to vote for him at the next election, early and often. The Prime Minister appoints you ambassador to a country that is still not on any map of the world. And the President of the country, at your farewell party, hands you coded instructions that you can open only in cases of extreme urgency, like a thimble of cyanide. And all the time, while these comprehensive preparations take place, your life companion is by your side, of course. But, at the climax of the send-off, when you are about to say good-bye to your country with a patriotic hug, and embark on your thorny trade mission – the telephone rings in the hall, sounding like it’s under your pillow. Your wife leaves the iron and starts a long and detailed exchange about whether mousaka with leeks should be cooked with oil or with gas. In the meantime, the smoke of reality gradually drifts through the cobwebs of slumber. The shirt under the iron turns from white to yellow, from yellow to brown, from brown to black, and then a hole – and panic unnecessarily seizes the house, until the receiver is put down and the fire is located. That is how the first intellectually productive morning slumber of our pensioner, newspaper in his lap and glasses on his nose, ends.
In order to escape this drowsiness without noticing he was in its net, he quickly lifts the newspaper and glasses, but he doesn’t know where he was in his reading. He leafs through the pages, more with noise than with his mind, and he folds it open to the obituaries and the forecast. He goes over the deceased, not like an angel in silence but like a sparrow hawk from the clouds, but then he realizes again that the familiar names have already been checked off, and the forecast is the same. It’s a different thing with the crossword puzzle: he always argues with his wife about who should get it first and she always tricks him, so he’s left only with the clues that she didn’t manage to fill in. That is what she used to do since the beginning of their marriage with playing cards, and in general. In the beginning he would let her win, but in time she started really beating him, so he still owes her a dozen high heels, modern purses, and silk for dresses. Luckily she is not malicious, or she’d have skinned him by now, especially since they depend on his pension, which he earned, but it’s not enough.
With the obituaries, it’s a different thing, for there are more levels there. The first circle contains the close ones, the ones you find out about by phone first. Then, there are the acquaintances, and the news about them is spread by phone and obituary at the same time. And finally the ones you learn about only through the obituaries. However, the obituaries tacked onto telephone poles concern neighborhood acquaintances only. You might meet them when you go to the grocery store: at once, turned into literature over night, instead of greeting them as they walk just like you, with a bag in hand, you see them on the telephone pole, in a barely recognizable picture from their younger years, with their full name and surname, not their nickname, and their age even, within a thick black frame. But most of this black news is published in the newspapers – the city one (aren’t we a big city?) and the state (aren’t we an independent state?). So, returning to them now again, you can make a daily balance of how many left in ripe age (your peers), how many after you, and how many before you, though here an account can be made only to the extent that there is order in this matter, and because God did not grant us such a thing, your count remains incomplete. That’s why you drop the pencil, sharpened for the crossword puzzle but used for the obituaries also, and you leaf through the newspaper for a hundredth time, stopping not only at the headlines but also at the texts, until you throw the thing away.
With batteries full of the day’s information and fresh impressions, having rested and even napped, now you can do some serious work. Take a book from the ones you put aside for reading, write a letter if there is one to write, sort the piled notes, or sit at the typewriter. Anything, just so you don’t feel useless. While you’re pondering, you enter the kitchen and consider whether to make a second coffee.
There, neighbor women of the first order sit with your wife and have their morning exchange of another kind of information. They ask you if you know a certain someone, you admit you do, but carefully, so as not to fall for something. What ever happened to that someone, you ask, standing above your coffee pot on the stove, they sitting in front of their empty cups. What ever happened, did he have a heart attack? Or, did he die before his time? You guess, and they deny knowing. Did he become a shadow minister, did he travel abroad? A diplomat, MP, representative of a foreign company, lecturer at a world university, beneficiary of a Fulbright scholarship? No. Old age? No. What then? He remarried: left his wife with the children and the house, and moved into the apartment of some bimbo. He, that guy? He, your school friend. Congratulations. What congratulations? For his courage. Or balls? If he has any.
Of course, your coffee boils over, the froth on top long ago spilled off, and with what’s left of your coffee you retreat to your, as if were, workroom. Maybe it’s better that only the bottom of the cup is full, and all at once you feel not only excited but shivering, and your hands shake, your dentures rattle. Your mind is not on your deliberations anymore, or which serious affair to deal with; now you are preoccupied with that certain someone, with his tremendous decision to remarry at your age. The coffee is not enough, sometimes even after a cigarette, and you might consume two coffees per day and ten cigarettes, without alcohol and salt, without bread and sugar, without lard and sweets. Vegetating only, without overdoing things and overworking, without passion and stress. Everything that might contribute to stress should be shaken off at every crossroad.
You fall into the chair, your easy chair, but your hands still shake – with the cup also, and the cigarette. Why are you so excited? Why are you shaken by this case of one of your contemporaries? This certain individual was an average student, who had nothing special during his youth and it seemed he had an average life, a usual career, and nothing but a gray perspective. Indeed, there were some dark spots in his biography, because he was behind in his studies, a thing he explained as the result of family problems deep in the provinces, but he solved them one at a time and went forward as he could, and he seemed not to envy those that were before him or feel sorry for those left behind him. As a peasant who decided to come down to town from the mountains, he walked around, swaying, not knowing his left from his right. Nobody knew what he had in mind, but he got a job during his studies and arranged his life as if he had always been in the city. He must have advanced in his work, and in his career, if he could afford to start a new life when he passed the halfway point, not to mention half a century. Now, apart from that, with the new age, with pluralism as the newest ism, new possibilities were open, unforeseen prospects uncovered, and some people with business vitality saw there was not an end to their beginning or a beginning to their end, but a true beginning to their mature years and endless prospects. That was the case with this individual, it was clear all at once, that is, he himself victoriously announced it to the media, that he suffered in his youth because of his nationalistic ideals, that he had spent a couple of years in prison, and all of that was reflected in his life, career, and everything else. Disfranchised by the old system, he asked for compensation now, in the party, at work, and in his private career. Obviously, the man felt he stood before the renewal of his life and not the sunset of possibility. You should shake his hand, if it is not a lie. And even if he lies, he has some right to it, if he lies to himself first, and then others believe him. The lie and deceit will be revealed too late, the truth so embellished that it will look like truth, if distorted.
The neighboring women finally have some mercy and leave one after another – they have so much work waiting. The house is quiet all of a sudden, like an overturned boat, and that silence bothers you suddenly. Only cups and pots, dishes and pans clatter in the kitchen. When the young are not at home, the telephone rings rarely. Now, at noon, the neighbor-intellectuals roll up their sleeves to cook lunch. Something in the manner of a modern cook, nothing traditional, but something fast, for on the run.
“What’s for lunch?” you ask loudly from your workroom, but still have to go to the kitchen to check for yourself. “Lentils,” says the housewife, cleaning them as if she’s threading a needle. No matter how much you shell them, you think without telling her, I’ll get stones again. Stones, not coins. “What with?” You show some interest just to hide your disappointment. “With garlic,” which is the answer you expected. “You can peel it.” You can, but you don’t want to. Your fingers will smell of garlic, and what you write won’t contain either garlic or water. “Is today a fastday?” You are interested again, knowing that no matter how modern she pretends to be, she keeps a church calendar hidden somewhere. “There’s no fast, but you’re on a diet.” If I’m on a diet, the whole world doesn’t have to fast. This is your reasoning, but you still negotiate. “Can’t it be with a bit of bacon, chopped in small pieces; it doesn’t even have to be fried, huh?” Lentils without anything are worse than white beans. And we have left poverty behind, tossed it over our shoulders, like exchanging a bad tooth for a gold one, and it cannot lick our heels anymore, not to mention jumping back on our backs. Actually, the garlic reminds me of pieces of bacon, but it can deceive the eye only, not the tongue. “No,” she answers, giving orders not like a chef but like a sergeant. “Strict diet,” she reminds you with the same tone. That is what the doctor prescribed as a post-scriptum, as diagnosis and therapy. It’s the same – whether you go to a doctor, or are ordered by a woman: they’ll always find something, illness or work, to cut off from your life. “What about the kids?” you remind her. “How will you feed the kids with lentils?” When they lift the lid, they’ll immediately frown, and who knows whether they’ll even pick up a spoon. Just take a taste to please the cook. You’re sure of it, as if seeing it before your eyes – today’s kids are not vegetarians, they’re meat-eaters. Between a heap of spinach and a slab of bacon, they’ll grab the meat first. “Don’t worry about the kids,” their mother consoles you. She consoles you, and smiles. “They’ll fry some sausages, the homemade ones.” Instead of an appropriate image, you sense the penetrating smell of the heated juice of the singed sausage. The drunken sausage comes before your eyes, in a homemade casserole in a clay pot. You almost shed a tear for the imagined pleasure, but that’s because of the garlic you’re peeling.
You return to your room like that. Workroom, as it’s officially known. A writing desk, reading chair, a sofa for resting on. A library on one wall, with books all the way to the ceiling, some read, some unread, some to be re-read. But the desk cluttered with piles of papers, notebooks, and letters, and between the ashtray and the lamp there is barely some space to put your elbows, ready to write. The reading chair is used more and more for daytime drowsing, and the resting sofa for nighttime sleeping. A pair of cooing doves fly to the window, overlooking the yard and not the city, as in children’s literature. It is perfect for writing, if only your mind were here. There are so many things to begin, to finish, re-do, put in the typewriter and never mail, but first handed over to some editorial board while you wait to be published. But, what should you begin, what should you finish, and what should you put in the typewriter? When life was immeasurable, it seemed possible. And now, when it has shortened, it’s more and more unreachable, even the things that seem at hand. When you’re young you think you don’t have enough life experience –critics and the practical keep beating you on the head with that. And when you obtain it, that is, when you grow old, you start doubting not only how much somebody needs your life experience but also whether they need it at all. The ones you can and should give it to, with a word decently composed, are busy obtaining their own experience they will carry into their lives. And yours remains bran instead of flour, and you cannot live on it, except that’s it’s possible to use like an inherited decoration, something you got used to and therefore don’t throw away.
While these dilemmas, or better, these unfinished thoughts, kick you around the workroom, you now sit at the desk, now rest your elbows on the armchair, now relax on the sofa, like a winter magpie searching for a grain on bare branches – and here comes noon. The working day is over, as well as the extended breakfast break. The smell of garlic in the lentils comes from the kitchen, almost burned in the middle of female chatter, and any work atmosphere evaporates from your workroom. The pile on the desk remains untouched, and the doves, in love, fly away from the window. The literary time is over, except maybe literature for children. You’ll continue tonight, you lie to yourself, when the children go to bed. The night is perfect for creation, if you can’t come to terms with sleep.
Without anybody’s warning, alone like a priest, you dress and go for the grandchildren. Cars with young mothers hurrying from work speed around the curves. Cats run across the alleys, searching through the stuffed garbage bins. The grandchildren are already waiting at the kindergarten with bitten little apples in their hands. “Dessert.” They not only explain, but also show. Wow, you think, they’ve learned a new word, a foreign one. And you rarely find such small apples, even at the green market. “Dessert,” you repeat after them, “small apples for small kids.” But it seems that their unexceptional dessert doesn’t thrill them, so as soon as you reach the first store, they pull on you by both hands so you’ll buy them some chocolate. What a grandfather you are, if you don’t have at least candy in your pocket for the grandchildren. So, they with already half-eaten chocolates and you with their bitten little apples, roll home. And there, instead of being glad, they scold you, not only the grandmother, but also the mothers – why did you give them a chocolate dessert before they ate some warm soup? Even when a guy thinks well, he does badly. I wonder how it is when a guy thinks badly?
Bowing above your plate, as if childishly guilty, you eat your lentils with garlic instead of pieces of bacon. And you try to slurp as quietly as possible, because it annoys the young ones as well as their grandmother. And you are annoyed by the smell of the sausages that are fried anyway, but who asks you? It enters your nostrils, fills your eyes, teases your tongue – you almost start crying, even drooling. That’s why you hurry to finish the meal and retreat to your room. The noise of the young ones, happy to have returned from work, remains behind you, the cries of the grandchildren forced to eat what they don’t like, and the sound of the beer tops popping off. For you it’s over, behind all that you close the door, maybe out of anger but also under duress. You still have the right to an apple, and the best that can be done there is with the two bitten by the grandchildren, and that’s it.
After the light daily meal (LDM – as the young jokingly call it in their habit of making abbreviations), it is the best to relax in the armchair; the sofa is for a full stomach, and the working desk for an empty one. A coffee and a cigarette would be good now, but you have to give up a vice at a time. In the same way you acquired them, easily and one after another, now it is difficult to give them up step-by-step. There is nothing left but to finish the little kindergarten apples, cleaning the skins of lentils and garlic from your few teeth. At the same time you listen to the news on the radio, you leaf through the morning’s newspaper – keeping your eyes and ears as open as possible. Although you’re already chugging into the last railway station, you don’t want to miss anything that is happening in the world. Strangely, you are less interested in what is happening in your immediate surroundings – maybe because it is not only well known, but also boring.
When you finish the little apples, you pick up a book you’ve already started reading and now listen to music on the radio. This is a level lower on the daily scales, the afternoon rest of the served worker. But, as much as the book attracts you, the music distracts you, and it forces you to surrender to the oft-used and familiar compromise. You close your eyes, with your glasses on, you put down the book, open in your lap, and you give up. That is, you fall asleep in the usual position of a retired grandfather, one that regularly makes the grandchildren laugh. And as you finish digesting the lentils in your rumbling stomach, a thought rushes into your head, and misty images appear in front of your eyes. And none of them stops, and you stop on none of them. Like bits of a montage, clips of film, it keeps turning on some roll, in the opposite direction and in a dissonant tone.
Night sleep is sleep, with dreams or without them. And a daytime nap is a doze, where the dreaming is only half-dream. Some shallow spring where the waves of drowsiness pull from the bottom the stones of reality. So they roll you in that vortex, they neither sink you nor release you, until you dive out of it with your eyes still closed. In that doze you’re not startled by a fairy tale, in that half-dream you don’t hit a stone, but all of a sudden your doctor appears, more like a house ghost than a doctor for the spirit.
You see yourself sitting at the desk, now cleared of the unnecessary things, and you are straight on the chair, ready to go. The typewriter is in front of you, with a piece of paper still clean and empty. Your concept, scribbled by hand, readable for you only, is above the typewriter, as on a note stand. On the right side, near at hand, is the ashtray with a lit cigarette and a cup of bitter coffee. On the left side, a glass of homemade brandy and a plate of salad. You wait for the first strike; the first word is the most difficult. If you get it, everything opens up afterwards – as when you strike with an axe the only place the wood can break, no matter how many knots there are. But, though the concept is in front of your eyes, and though the composition is in your head, you keep on postponing the first move. You are looking for the first, right, crucial word; but no matter how much you search, not in a book, but in your own head, just common, well known, a thousand, myriad, who knows how often repeated beginnings keep popping up. You should concentrate, you conclude. You take a deep drag of the cigarette, you fiercely press it into the ashtray, you sip some of the brandy without tasting it, and you stare at the salad plate as if it’s a still life. Nothing again, still nothing.
Then, from behind your back, like a professor at a written exam, your doctor comes – not to check whether you’re cheating, but just making his rounds. With heavy glasses on his nose and an extinguished cigarette in his mouth, he drinks only yogurt at home and water when he visits, like the director of a clinic for overdrawn accounts. “I caught you,” he says instead of a greeting, with a threat, as if he has really found you copying. You show him the empty piece of paper in the typewriter as evidence on your behalf. “You’re writing, huh?” He leans over to peek, and you don’t know whether he will praise you or scold you. You don’t know whether to stand up and keep him company in the hall or stay and pretend you are busy. “Nice, nice. Write, write. Except, this is no good.” And he takes the brandy glass and doesn’t hide it behind his back but returns it to its place, as a temptation that one cannot escape. “It’s for my inspiration.” You defend yourself, but you are ready to surrender. “Concentration.” “Inspiration or concentration, still it’s no good.” As if he didn’t notice how bright it is in light, but what the left chamber of your heart looks like. Then he starts explaining in detail about the devastating consequences of this habit – how at first it serves as inspiration or concentration and eventually becomes compensation for not writing. “Man at first writes and sips, then drinks and writes, then writes a bit and drinks, then drinking and writing less and less. He doesn’t cross the line into writing, and he doesn’t cross the line into not drinking. Metathesis. He replaces writing with drinking. When he gets drunk, he imagines he’ll write who knows what; and when he’s sober, his head is empty and his hand won’t work. Amateurism, professionalism, alcoholism. Stages of a conceited author. Get it?”
You don’t get it: none of those phrases is personally known to you; neither in writing nor in drinking. You were always your own man, with your own limits; at least you’ve known yourself as such, even if others didn’t know you that way. And still, the home doctor, like a ghost in the house, retreats from your workroom, threatening you with his pointer and indicating the brandy glass. And he doesn’t close the door as he should, but leaves it wide open – so that the mixed odors of the kitchen enter. You wish to follow him and defend yourself at the doorstep, but you don’t move. Why should you exert effort when things are as they are? You don’t feel like drinking, you don’t feel like writing, you don’t even feel like smoking. You wonder why he hasn’t mentioned smoking, probably because he himself never takes a cigarette out of his mouth. You feel your parched tongue and see yourself endlessly far from the first word you were supposed to type on the typewriter.
Instead of that, one of the grandchildren shakes you by the shoulder. It’s like an electrical shock. “Grandpa, do you want some coffee?” he yells in your ear, climbing onto your knee. You lift your head, open your bleary eyes, and come out of the stupor, but you see yourself not at the desk but in the armchair. “I do,” you answer readily, “but without sugar, and with milk.” Your grandson runs out so as not to forget the order on the way, and you don’t have the chance to ask him if the doctor had stopped by. But then you realize that has no meaning for you anymore, because it wasn’t even a dream, just half a dream.
So, remaining in your armchair, you sip your coffee and stare at the television. In this place there is nobody to object that you slurp when you sip and yawn when you stare. Over there, with the young, there are guests all the time, loud noise, something boiling on the stove, and they boiling in laughter. As if there are no wars around, as if the future is theirs. Among their feet, the grandchildren reenact kindergarten with piles of toys, after first running around yards and alleys. Because of their racket, perpetual as a blessed spring, neither the telephone, nor the speakerphone, nor the gramophone, nor the tape-recorder can be heard – until they are taken to dinner and put to bed, when they start crying again. And when the apartment grows quiet, they bring you your supper, a cup of loose dry cheese in a dish the size of a hand, and a cup of yogurt: the cheese is just to full your stomach, and the yogurt to help it slide down.
Your stomach full, you hop into the room to let your fast settle in your bowels. Then, you return to your armchair to finish watching the program on the screen till the end, and when your eyes start hurting, you still get the images from the sound, you imagine them, as they don’t enter your head. You’re already started chanting in your brain, you are in no shape to work, you cannot start writing now. There is the day, you comfort yourself. You undress and go to bed. You have swallowed your pills, but you haven’t brushed your teeth. Tomorrow, you remind yourself. You cover yourself up to your shoulders, you turn toward the wall, and close your eyes. You don’t fall asleep for hours, you wait for the last noise in the house to calm down, and you still think: each life deserves to be written down, it’s not a plaything – there is death. Tomorrow, starting tomorrow. And – you don’t give a damn.
Translated by: Elizabeta Bakovska