11. 16. 2006. 08:08

Uncle Vida (short story)

“There’s all these beautiful new houses, some with six rooms and split levels, burdened with mortgages, and the head of the household out of work, not to mention the children, they signed a contract to have them, and got promised the moon, and now there’s nothing, just the shit hitting the fan. Then after a while the wife gets fed up and wants a divorce. That’s how things go today. And the houses, Uncle Vida says, the houses are up for sale. But who's gonna want to buy them, he says.”

The street is waiting for the mailman. His cheeks are ruddy, he’s got a moustache, he wears a blue uniform, a green cape, with a small red ribbon pinned to it. Around these parts it’s unruly horses that get ribbons like this tied to the harness, so people know better than to stroke them. The mailman does his rounds on a motorbike with a side-car, and he doesn’t have to be given a drink either, like before. Before he used to do his rounds on a bicycle and people were expected to give him a glass of brandy or wine that he’d gulp down after making a show of reluctance. The tip too came to twenty or thirty forints, a veritable fortune around these parts with pensions being the way they are. By noontime he wouldn’t sit on top of his bike but push it alongside him. Yes, mam, yes, sir, he’d holler when asked, tomorrow, you’ll have it tomorrow! Fine, dearie, but bring it in the morning before it gets hot like it is now! When he reeled off, he was dragged into a nearby house. He’d rest up, then continue his rounds. In the afternoon he works as a hired hand plowing the land with a horse, taking on shipments, pruning the vine. He is respected because he works hard, and no one has ever stolen from him.

The street consists of thirty to forty houses on the outskirts of the village. At the head of the street there’s a tavern and a bus stop. Half the people are retired or live off of unemployment. How they manage nobody knows, least of all themselves. The houses are of varying sizes, some big, some small, and each has a small garden. Some of the people even own a bit of land, but what’s the use, Uncle Vida says, when nobody buys anything. Whatever you grow, there’s no takers. The state had the cows butchered, while those that kept theirs now have to milk it and feed it and spread the dung. As for the milk, nobody wants that neither, and fattening a pig’s not worth it either, the fodder costs money, and then the slaughterhouse, they either take it or not, and for what? For peanuts. Besides, an animal’s not like TV, you can’t switch it off and go vacationing or the movies, or what not. The livestock’s got to be fed, Sundays and holidays included. They gotta be fed every day, several times a day. People don’t think about that.

Uncle Vida is a well read man, and sensible, too. He’s just turned seventy. He owns five holds of land, a vineyard, a horse, a cart. He grows corn, sunflower, cabbage. He’d like to take his apples to market, but people, he says, won’t eat anything but oranges and bananas these days. He says that in the spring he buys cabbage seedlings for two or three forints a piece, and come fall, a head will fetch no more than seedling price at the market, provided anybody wants it, though it needs tending year around, hoeing and watering and sprinkling with insecticides, and even so it either turns out all right, or not. It’s the same with everything, Uncle Vida says. I can’t eat everything myself, he says, and what I don’t grow I gotta pay for. Like bread, and shoes... I gotta pay the electric bill, the water, taxes. Everything. Everything costs money. But where am I to get it, Uncle Vida asks. I don’t have a pension. I wouldn’t mind selling things now and then, he says, but there aren’t any takers. People haven’t got any money. I don’t know how this is all gonna end, he says.

This is Winding Street, he says. It winds around, so and that’s what we always called it, Winding, even when it went by other names. It’s been called Ságvári(1) Street, and now Radnóti,(2) but nobody calls it that, not even the mailman or the chimney sweep. Nobody. When anybody comes asking for it by name, people give him a look, then ask who he’d be wanting. People don’t go by street numbers around here, Uncle Vida says, they don’t even know their own. The other day, too, Mrs. Kiss, she said to the doctor, Doctor, dearie, what do I have to know the street number for, I can find my way home without it. We don’t need street numbers. This is a hillside. It used to reach down to the stream, but there’s nothing there now except a thicket. It’s dried up. My father and the others used to go fishing there. Things were different back then, Uncle Vida says. As for the street, it took shape just like all the others. A cart drove along, then another and another and another in its tracks, then somebody put up a shack, a house. There was plenty of mud for adobe. Today some have split levels. And there’s also a concrete sidewalk, but only on the upper side of the street. When it rains the water runs down to the side below, Uncle Vida says. For them that live there it’s bad, he says, and there’s a lot of bickering, because the people living above dig grooves to divert the water and the hogs stand belly-high in it and the rugs come floating out into the yard. But it’s been some time since we had rain like that, he says.

Our fathers and grandfathers could still manage to give a piece of land to each of their children, and a house, Uncle Vida says. We were expected to add to it, work hard so we could pass something on to our children. But that’s not what happened. The co-op(3) came and the young people left empty-handed to work in the mines or construction sites or the foundry. Most of them never came back, Uncle Vida says. And then, those that were born after them left, too. They went off to school, the factories, Debrecen, Pest. Whatever. And now they’re trooping back hungry and penniless. They drink and loaf around. They play cards. They live off the old folk and wait for the mailman. Some wait for their relief, others for their pension. Money. They’re all waiting for money. And they’re impatient. And then when the money comes, they pay, each man whatever he owes the other. Whoever. Lots of people. The tavern, the store, Sarkadi, Pintér. Wine and brandy are sold at three houses in the neighborhood, Uncle Vida says, on credit, otherwise they couldn’t get rid of it. It’s weak wine, it’s bad wine. They make hedge-wine from the rape, then add it to the regular wine. By Easter it’s pure mold. Then they skim it off, add sulfur and sugar and sell it by the glass. They ask a stiff prize. Considering that there’s no money coming up front anyway, what’s the difference? Good-looking swarthy young men idling under this window looking out or standing around outside with nothing to do. Nobody wants to take on the raking any more, Uncle Vida says, or milk the cow, or feed the pigs. They won’t sit on a cart either. They’d rather walk alongside or ride a bike. At home, they bicker with their wives or parents. They divorce. There’s all these beautiful new houses, some with six rooms and split levels, burdened with mortgages, and the head of the household out of work, not to mention the children, they signed a contract to have them,(4) and got promised the moon, and now there’s nothing, just the shit hitting the fan. Then after a while the wife gets fed up and wants a divorce. That’s how things go today. And the houses, Uncle Vida says, the houses are up for sale. But who's gonna want to buy them, he says.

Uncle Vida’s wife died four years ago, come Christmas. Every death and accident in the family happened on Christmas, Uncle Vida says, and he wouldn’t mind if he never saw another Christmas long as he lived. First, it was his brother. He was shaving when all of a sudden he sat down and said, oh my god. But his head was blue by then, then black. He was gone quick as anything, just like that, sitting on a chair. His leg too got broke on Christmas. The hog pressed it against the fence and wouldn’t budge.

Uncle Vida lives with his son, but everybody knows that it’s his illness that brought him back home. He used to work in Diósgyőr(5) but after a time the fumes and the smoke ruined his lungs. But the real problem is his wife that left him to fend for himself when he got ill, Uncle Vida says. His mind is sick, too, he says. It’s his nerves, goddamn it, that’s why he doesn’t want to get well. They had a car and an apartment. You name it. And now he’s just sitting there, Uncle Vida says, or lying in bed ill, with nobody talking to him. Not even a handshake. He can’t go out or visit people because he’s got trouble with his lungs. He’s not contagious, Uncle Vida says, they said so in the hospital, or they wouldn’t have let him out. But still. We took him everywhere you can think of, Uncle Vida says, before his wife left him. We paid through the nose. We gave money to everybody, even the elevator man. He can’t sleep and he can’t stay awake. At night he gags and coughs like the devil. I get up, sit next to him, lift him up. Then, half way in my lap, like that, he dozes off, like a child. I took him to Doctor Szabó in the village, he’s an old man, retired, to find out what’s wrong. I’ll give you ten thousand forints, I said, if you make him better, twenty if you tell me the truth. If you cure him, you can ask for the moon. Mr. Vida, he says, don’t waste your money, your son won’t ever recover. Give him whatever he wants. He hasn’t got much time left. Just like that. In short, we all got our cross to bear. Mine is this. I can still work, even at my age, but this, this I can’t handle, Uncle Vida says. I kept telling my wife, look, we need two or three more children, that’s the real thing. But no. She may have been right, though. For all we know, she said, we won’t be able to bring up even this one properly. It was wartime and I was at the front. There was no guarantee I’d be back, Uncle Vida says. And now, this. There’s no telling, ever, what the future holds.

I won’t take anybody inside my house, not even the yard, he says. I won’t have people saying it was me that made them sick. I wash and cook and clean. My house is as clean as anybody’s, inside and out. People won’t shake hands with me neither any more, he says. The Harap boy says to me the other day, don’t take it to heart Uncle Vida, he says, but I got my child to think of. Fine, I say to him, you go and do that, but you don’t know who drank from your glass or bottle in the tavern before you, do you? It could’ve been me. Or the Dorogi boy’s horse, because he thinks it funny.

I take my boy two liters of red wine from Mrs. Sarkadi every day, Uncle Vida says, because she sells good wine. To me, at any rate. What would you like to eat, I ask my boy. And drink. But he won’t eat. Just the wine, the wine he forces down. But nothing else. I’d gladly bring him more wine, but he won’t drink it. Sometimes he can’t even keep the two liters down. He won’t drink my wine either, just Mrs. Sarkadi’s. Of course, Doctor Szabó also said that red is better for him. We get on nice and quiet. Who knows for how long. If there’d be someone that could pass his illness on to me and my life on to him, I’d kiss his hand. But there’s no such man.

When he got married, Uncle Vida built himself a house out of mud and wattle and beams. His house was the fifth on the street back then. Nice dry walls half a meter thick, the partitions thinner, warm in winter, cool in summer. There was an oven, too, but it got dismantled when the local shop started selling bread and it didn’t have to be made at home any more. Of course, there was nothing to make it from anyway. You can climb up to the attic from the porch, but there’s nothing there either, just a small shed with corn, a stable, pig pens, a small garden in front of the house. In summer gladiolas bloom there, and other things, too, perennials that Uncle Vida’s wife had planted. They come up by themselves every year. Outside, by the fence, there’s a small bench. It feels good sitting there and smoking and watching the world go buy. Everything is just fine, considering.

(1) Endre Ságvári, an illegal communist youth organizer, died in a gunfight when the Hungarian Arrow Cross tried to arrest him on July 27, 1944.
(2) Hungarian poet (1909–1945).
(3) The farmers' co-operatives were formed after World War II in the image of the Soviet kolhoz. After the regime change in 1989, the co-operatives were gradually privatized, but privatization gave leeway for illegal wheeling and dealing that left the former members indigent.
(4) During the Kádár era couples could get low interest loans to buy apartments by signing a promissory contract to have two or more children.
(5) Diósgyőr was a major center of heavy industry, a communist showcase with a huge steel factory.

More short stories by Sándor Tar on the internet:
"What Makes Us Want To Live?"; "Slow Freight" (in the Hungarian Quarterly, trans. Eszter Molnár)
"Slow Freight" (in the Chattahoochee Review, trans. Judith Sollosy)
"The Promise"; "Silvia" (in the European Cultural Review, trans. Eszter Molnár)

Translated by: Judith Sollosy

Tags: Sándor Tar