02. 18. 2013. 21:18

Summer brunch (intermezzo)

"For the truth is, my boy," he always told me, "is only the pawns matter, the major pieces are always the first to be exchanged." So that was my father's lesson to me. I of course disregarded his advice, and thereby demolished his reality, the imaginary one based on unwritten codes; usually using two knights, the occasional rook helping out from the background.

As they tend to do, stories have a way of elapsing backwards. On the other hand, who could tell which way is forward, but one thing is certain: something going backwards isn't forwards. In light of these circumstances, my old, gray mother slapped my father's hand as the hand reached for a chicken bone. That's for the dog, my mother growled (or possibly barked), and that about sums up the events of this brief episode. But just so we don't go hungry, I'll give a quick sketch of the scene and fill it in with some important, and moreover irrelevant minutia.

The only feature shared by my father and mother is the fact that both had contributed to my existence. And this for example, we can easily ascertain, cannot be said of anyone else, not strictly speaking anyway, not counting the clog-clacking white-coated stir of the bustling nurses and doctors on the maternity ward. Another thing true about them and them only, is that they appear in this brief scene. Or they do at this point, to be more exact. But far more interesting than similarity - as it tends to be -, is of course their difference, and altogether better graspable. Contrary to my mother, my father believed the garden to be a great salad bowl, the birches leeks, the currant shrubs salad leaves. He believed the sun was a pancake stuck on the kitchen ceiling, and he quite simply believed my mother to be a bulldog. The neighbors' bulldog, which now snatched after his hand on account of the bone's ownership.

Talk about my mother! My mother took an uncomplicated view of my father as being an insufferable and shiftless old man, with teeth missing, and thus slow to chew, and who incidentally disliked Hrabal (unlike my mother), and who spread the word throughout the bars of his heavenly cooking, which is downright offensive to my mother, given the stark obvious and all but biblical fact that my father never cooks. What a shame it was back in eighty-seven, my mother thought to herself, when Maris came up to me, wheedling and envious, saying she'd heard of my hubby's chicken paprikás. Even more surprising was how my father actually took that chicken paprikás down to the pub, and in her mind my mother carefully traced its origins to her cooking, whereby her husband robbed her, both in a physical and an intellectual sense. My mother also knew that my father could boast a past coated in the unromantic drab grayness of onetime party members, while my mother, contrary to some defaming rumors and false allegations, was nobility on one side, and Jewish on the other, and not just average at that: historically Jewish! Indeed, for my mother being Jewish always evoked a sense of historical immediacy, something she could wrap herself in, like for instance the turn-of-the-century lace lingerie inherited from her grandmother, a small detail of the substantial turnover my grandfather managed between Prussia and Pest, doomed to utter futility as the profits thereof were promptly lost to the inflation that followed the First World War. So this was my mother's historical prospect on her lingerie, which she kept for long but never once wore.

But having got this far in unraveling a scene whose offset (back to front) was an insignificant minutia, it would seem senseless to stop short at this point, especially because in due time, we encountered matters of far greater import further along the sketch.

If we were to sift carefully through the details of the account, we may come across something very important, or better still: individual details, put in a different overall, may acquire special relevance.

Nestled under a detail, apparently of parsley potatoes, was my mother's wedding ring, whose identity neither of them would have guessed, not my father, in any case. Come to think of it, my mother may have an inkling, she does frown when my father decides to finish eating. My mother blundered, she utterly screwed up the prank with the starting (or was it terminal?) handslap, so that my father took offense, as he typically would. Offended as he was, he wouldn't eat.

Of course it may well be that all we've said about the wedding ring is simple conniving, and nobody has a clue. It may not even be there, but I'll go beyond that: it may even be conceivable that my father secretly admires Hrabal, and this could be the very thing my mother resented, that this tiny corner of the universe (though speaking of Hrabal, this corner may prove somewhat bigger) is beyond monopolizing, she can't claim it for herself as a world away from my father. Who knows. Let's just leave Hrabal out of the Sunday garden brunch scene altogether, he has no business being there.

Once my mother-turned-bulldog as my father saw her made toward the house with the plates all piled together, my father poked a sly, in fact a surreptitious dig with his spoon, turning the parsley potatoes (on the single plate remaining on the table, an act of consideration on my mother's part, though not one above suspicion), in case he might discover a portion of wedding ring in there - a detail of lunch, not of narrative - or perhaps a bothersome fragment of their marriage now approaching its fiftieth year, one that might easily stick in his throat.

At this moment we must realize the wedding ring issue isn't a matter of fact, merely a projection, an all but physical one, of my father's greatly deteriorated mental and psychic state, a bulge, a tumor or whatnot.

My mother was correct: indeed my father doesn't like Hrabal, though I think one may assume he might not know him at all. Left to his own devices, he would read the works of Mészöly, or moreover he would make a passage through László Márton's glass, but this too is only a fiction of sorts, all the more possible for its being far away from the so-called truth: my father's truth. "For the truth is, my boy," he always told me, "is only the pawns matter, the major pieces are always the first to be exchanged." So that was my father's lesson to me. I of course disregarded his advice, and thereby demolished his reality, the imaginary one based on unwritten codes; usually using two knights, the occasional rook helping out from the background. And of course, my father never understood about this. He scratched his head, and I could tell he was thinking that whatever took place on the board, what I took of his place, was no more than mindless hacking and some god-awful amateurs' luck. To this day we sometimes sit down for a game, or match as he likes to call it. The same applies to schnitzel: "A little overdone, my boy, that's the ticket" (scorched as a matchstick, I might now add).

He would so like to ask my mother if she'd heard what's on the news, but they've been listening to the news together for forty years now, so it's out of the question. Not that there'd be much point, as my father is the only reason my mother ever listens to the news (perhaps expressly to avoid conversation), as she no longer cares for the world's affairs at all. My mother is a cynical person, and may be said to travel frontally in an intellectual sense (much like a bus, in fact), but her cooking tends toward the lyrical. Monstrous-lyrical. My father is basically lyrical, an ascetic work-horse type, albeit he makes too a composed job of coffee, one might call it needling. This may be the very reason he once plagiarized my mother's chicken paprikás down the bar, attempting to give a lyrical impression of himself, not only in word but in the chicken as well.

My father awoke to the tinkling sound of bells, a familiar sound. He always thought he must have died and these are welcoming angels. Later on, as it happened for the last fifty or so years on Sunday afternoons, he realized he was still alive, with a prospect first of bitter, then sour, then quite sweet flavors, and a view of my mother approaching (this could make a nifty title somewhere: My Mother Approaching, my thought there, not my father's). My mother approached bearing cups, coffee steaming in the summer sunlight. This isn't bad at all, we may add. My mother arriving not yet from heaven, just the kitchen, though to say just is incongruous. This is, my father thought, not so bad. And he thought the same every Sunday, something he managed by not having a memory spanning more than four or five days, or minutes sometimes. He no longer knew his own thoughts, but the outlines of his thoughts seemed familiar all the same and it felt good filling them in again. These thoughts always resembled white plastic garden chairs of an alluring nature, an unsurpassable pleasure to fill out on a summer afternoon such as this, when one's lyrical-bulldog wife brings coffee in tinkling cups. The well-familiar shape of the cups. Not intimacy, more of a "where have I seen those before" feeling to them. My mother pours coffee to fill the cups. Inadvertently it lands not in the cup, but on the white garden chair, mingling with my father. filling his thoughts (my father doesn't hiss in pain, but pulls a toothless smile) and filling in my father's entire being, without a hiss, a toothless smile.

There seems to be a sort of discreet shine, not blinding, just one of those Pilinszky lights. My father's mouth twists back to its usual place, then moves: "Have you heard the news? The finest news in my life. The faction gave the prime minister its vote of confidence, the Russians pulled out of Georgia, South Ossetia came to terms with the motherland, a rhinoceros was born in the city zoo, called Ida. The nation's growing and prospering, people live well. What more do we need? Joli, are you living well?"

Though there wasn't much of an answer, my mother having already taken back to the kitchen, my father thought he heard and saw my mother quietly break into tears. Could it be possible they know so little of each other? My mother would never break into tears at such a question, instead she'd be dumbfounded and outraged, pleading for decency, though in fact weighed down by the obtrusive, awkward truth, saying she too knew exactly what was on the news and the rhino wasn't called Ida, it was Arnie and she's positive she's right about this one thing - meanwhile we all had to take into account a Sunday somewhat differing from the others, and so my mother too may be somewhat different from her usual self, so that perhaps if she weren't darning my father's socks in the living room, she might indeed burst out crying, because she's not living well, because she never did want to darn my father's socks or ever become subservient to anyone. That too was of course long ago. She stitched, then bit through the thread, holding the sock away from her eye, turning it out, then back again.

The doorbell rang. The coffee was cold, but that was how my father had always liked it. It was a good ten minutes before my mother made it to the little garden gate. Behind it there stood a man of mid-height and a strict countenance. Yet it was as if his strict brow was only a frame to a childlike gaze, an effort to neutralize a slightly lopsided posture. With his broad face, squat nose, chin bristling with mustard colored stubble, he gave a flippant but elegant impression, like those who mature very late and suddenly. My mother couldn't believe her eyes: was this really her husband behind the gate? Not the current one sitting quietly in the garden, but that other one she had once met.

Minutes passed before she recognized her firstborn son, who was mulling about behind the gate in embarrassment, afraid he was simply taken for a trespasser on the street.

"Good morning mother. I had a little business in Pest, thought I'd drop by."

Since my brother's moved to Brussels, my mother had a hard time dealing with his absence, and even more difficult were his sudden unexpected appearances.

Perhaps she did consider him a trespasser. Unexpected occurrences didn't sit well with my mother.

"I guess you're looking for your father. He's in the garden."

Before we go on telling the story of this simple, all but inconsequential Sunday afternoon, let's be quick to clarify how my brother's unexpected appearance took place before lunch, and this relates to the events recounted earlier, my father's unusual good mood, which would have been hard to explain with simple workaday phenomena.

They didn't talk much, though my brother sat next to my father till noon, lunchtime. With him however, this unspeaking silence isn't a sign of being tuned in to one another, but of how my father's platitudes have been irrelevant for years and he can't penetrate this wall of coagulated commonplace. Talking isn't a strong point for either of them, though my father is unaware of this. Let's therefore settle for awkward silence.

"How are you?"

"Fine, thank you."

"No pains?" My father waves this off as if dying were a primeval source of humor.

"Over seventy, every part hurts. Then you feel a pain even when nothing hurts. Life hurts, everywhere."

Such an assertion is best left unanswered, and if my brother is to some extent wise, he will know it's off limits to him.

"Do you always sit out in the garden?" This time, my father made no reply. For a while they listened to the shrieking that carried over from the nearby schoolyard, so elementary it actually meant something to both of them, something so alike, the scene was finally broken off by the steaming chicken soup brought by my mother.

"Will you eat with us?"

"No, I have to go."

"When are you coming?"

"I'm not sure yet."

"I thought so. Enjoy your meal."

"Always leaves. Never comes, only ever leaves."

"Leave him. A young man like him has a lot on his hands. Let's be grateful."

There was nevertheless something touching about my father's pathos if we recall that although he'd mention the pain, he'd make it sound banal and you could never really identify or sympathize with him, all the while that the wrinkle at the base of his ear let on that the pain was beyond enduring. I think my mother knew too, or at least, felt it. A woman feels such things, and maybe that's why she was just a bit less rude on this particular day than what my father was used to. Not that my father caught the diff erence. He let my mother's rude remarks and jibes rub off him.

If we now review the initial scene, we will understand what it gave an account of. My mother didn't leave my father's plate on the table outside because she had something dubious in mind, but because, as far as she was concerned, it was clear as day that my father had to eat, and she tried her best to make her own mind as well as his concentrate on food. My father didn't mess with the parsley potatoes because due to his deteriorated psychological condition he suspected my mother of foul play, but because he hadn't eaten anything all day, and just as those who'd been living in the dark for too long must habituate their eyes to the sudden light, so he was habituating himself to the idea of eating. At this point the blindness and the apparitions in the garden that dazzled his eyes and the need to eat suddenly connect. For all practical purposes my father was blind by then, not that this will come as a surprise to anyone who has read this far. Not only will he not read Mészöly's Film, but he won't even watch TV any more, even though my mother sometimes turns it on, hoping the sound will calm him, except a radio broadcast - this is how my father felt - is more visual and easier to imagine, so he preferred listening to the radio.

By the afternoon my mother had grown really anxious and my father took her to task saying she should get off his back, he doesn't want to eat any more. Never again, my mother asked. She kept darting back and forth between the house and the garden, and though she tried to find something to occupy her, she couldn't relax. She was afraid to leave my father on his own, but when near him, she'd feel alarmed and would run back into the house. She did some sewing, washed the dishes, ironed some shirts. She tried watching TV.

My father was alone at last with nothing to torment him. In the mind's eye he imagined my mother's specialty, a huge cooked knuckle of ham with garlic, the last sign of the love remaining between them - my mother makes it and my father eats it, this is how they communicated; then everything grew lax/limp and silent. The only thing he heard now was the sounds of the squealing children from the nearby school. It was a bit as if he were at the Dagály Pool where many years ago he spent his afternoons. He met my mother, too, right there, in the water, and a year later he asked for her hand right there, too, in the water. They celebrated with a mug of beer, and my father slipped the ring on my mother's finger that subsequently fell in the potato mash about which my father said he'd made it himself, but when one day my mother suggested that he should make it again, he demurred. Which is how my mother found out that my father was having an aff air with Maris from next door, who has the bulldog. She didn't say anything, of course. She just made up her mind that she'd give even more to my father, she'd even turn into Maris, if need be, because her historical Jewish pride wouldn't allow for a nylon stockinged, flabby chested, stupid slut to get her man. My mother nearly choked on the wedding ring when she spooned into my father's, or rather, Maris's potato mash. But that was a long long time ago, sometime just after the change in regime, when the world was new again, and they didn't have to worry yet about global warming about which my father and she would have a heated argument once a week, at least, probably from sheer boredom.

My mother grew terribly agitated. The six o'clock news were about to start, but my father was still sitting out in the garden. She opened the window and shouted, “The news!” My father turned and shrugged. “Well, I never! He doesn't even care about the news anymore? That's the last straw. I'm taking a blanket out to him so he won't catch cold. He's so irresponsible these days.”

Somebody rang the bell.

My mother grew even more agitated. “Whoever it is will just have to wait!” The living room was in shambles, but she still couldn't find the blanket.

They rang again.

“To hell with you!”

“It's probably the mailman.”

She went to the small garden gate, and wouldn't you know, Maris from next door was standing on the other side looking youthful, her hair freshly done up and dyed walnut brown, and with a food carrier in her hand. I'm sure everyone is perfectly tuned into the scene I didn't bother to describe in which, just moments before the six o'clock news came on, Maris and my father had a chat across the fence and that the subject of their chat was the potato mash, of course.

“I brought you some potato mash. Fresh off the stove.” Maris leaned close to my mother, who by now lacked the strength even to temper her hatred, and whispered in her ear, “Our János is looking very bad.” “What does she mean by our János,” my mother thought, but that's not what she said.

“He's looking just fine. There's nothing the matter with him.”

“Can I come in?” And before my mother could respond, Maris was in the garden carrying the food.

For a while they stood side by side amongst the icicle radish and the imagined giant cauliflower and lettuce bends, in short, in my father's imagination, or rather, in my father's memory frozen for a moment in time. My mother didn't understand how or why, but the blanket was on my father, slipped halfway down his shoulder. His chin lay low on his chest so that his beard was spread out over his stomach, and his glasses had slipped way down his nose, his left hand hung stiffly down the arm of his chair, and his right hand lay in his lap, curled into a ball. Only later, when they came to take the body away, did it come to light that my father was clutching a wedding ring in his hand on which, as if it were a tiny wreath, some parsley leaves were stuck.

Some wives help their husbands through their death (whether this implies something grand or indeed terrible), and some will die right after their husband. That's what my mother did. But before it came to that, he slapped my father's hand as he was "hup", filling out this white, elegant and curved garden existence.

Péter Gerőcs was born in 1985, and has two volumes to date (Zombor és a világ, Budapest: Scolar, 2010; Tárgyak, Budapest: Scolar, 2012). For more information (in Hungarian), see his website.

Translated by: Dániel Dányi & Judith Sollosy

Tags: Péter Gerőcs