Excursion to Dubrovnik.
Milorad certainly hadn't noticed her immediately. There was the fatso Jurik, an engineer, and his wife and daughter, who were sitting in front of her. And at that point, Jurik was busy explaining various historical details as they passed by points of interest in the dusty bus with the seal of Kosice * affixed to its side. Jurik's wife, an unkempt peroxide blonde, was horribly bored by the commentary of her diligent aficionado and was falling asleep at regular intervals. Each time she woke up again, Jurik would turn to her, cocking his head like a sly old owl, and carefully inform her of what she had missed, pressing up against his wife's fat shoulder. Then, as soon as they made the first stop on Hungarian soil in Hatvan, Jurik had leaned over and, empowered by his apricot brandy, suddenly said, "Excuse me, young lady, but you look like a woman who's been abandoned, and ever since I was a young man, I could never stand to see a woman in distress."
She, a pharmacist, wasn't offended by this, since Jurik wasn't the first man to say something like this to her. From Hatvan on, he started addressing her fondly as Marienka and gave up his lecture on Hatvan's Bronze Age, dedicating himself to her by confessing that he was a passionate mushroom hunter--in a tone reminiscent of admitting he was actually a pederast. Marienka the pharmacist stayed quiet, which didn't bother the engineer at all, and so the flow of talk was only interrupted when he put a cabajka sausage into his mouth now and again. He impaled each sausage with a knife first--all in all, the process was similar to how Granny used to shove corn down the necks of geese and ducks.
He was constantly asking her questions, for example, "Do you go to the sea by yourself?" or "There are a lot of good-looking guys on the beach--is that exciting for you? Are you looking forward to it all, Marienka?" In Budapest, she managed to escape the engineer's attentions for at least several hours. She dropped by her favorite sweet shop, Vorosmarty, which had been called "Gerbeaud" before the war, named after its Swiss owner. She sat at an empty table right against the wall, which was papered in a sort of brocade, now threadbare. The marble tabletop was delightfully cold and the pharmacist ordered a coffee with whipped cream. Under the table, she took off her tall, eight-centimeter-heeled shoes, which she had bought at home to show off. The pharmacist's husband Stano used to say, "You just won't stop with those, huh. I'm amazed at you. You take them off and your ankles swell up. Just watch me have to crawl under the table and pick up your deserted shoes when you're ready to go."
There were mostly older people sitting near the pharmacist. Boney old ladies who had the tremors, but the old men were looking pretty decent. The old women had shiny bags that they had probably gotten from their son or grandson when they went to America. The women usually showed up in trios and shone with naphthalene elegance and the suspicious certainty of the economic class that had once owned apartment buildings and dry-good shops. On the bar there sat a giant porcelain Herend espresso machine, sporting painted bugs in the Art Nouveau style.
With a certain amount of disgust, the pharmacist returned to the parking lot near the parliament building on the Danube. The engineer Jurik solemnly welcomed her back to the bus: "Marienka, damn these Hungarians, it'd be hard to guess that they have more suicides per capita than the Americans or the Swedes. They're strange ones, these Hungarians."
Milorad finished his cigarette, put it out on the stone tile, turned his back to the pharmacist, and began to breathe steadily and deeply. The pharmacist leaned her head on her hand and went on thinking. He hadn't answered the question of where he had first seen her, he'd just grinned at her with his dazzling teeth, like a werewolf. After all, she had been lying on the beach a bit apart from the rest of them. The vacationers were bloated seals, not moving all day long, frying themselves in the unmerciful Adriatic sun. Two weeks for two thousand crowns. Wake up each morning, wash, do your hair, move from the mirror to the window--wide open, a view of a sea that's just finished ridding itself of nighttime burdens, but still as heavy as steel. After a communal and very noisy breakfast, the first one to get up was usually Comrade Laca, the leader of the division, and whom the pharmacist didn't much care for, thanks to his slimy manner, which she found off-putting. Jurik started talking about velvety red pine mushrooms right away that morning, and then the many edible, yellow menottes, and the pine boletus variety, and finally about the problems of preparing mushrooms that are sticky, the ones that newcomers usually avoid, because they look suspicious, but which he, Jurik, was able to prepare in such an excellent manner that they tasted even better than the orange birch bolete.
The pharmacist always took the same route to the beach. Dressed in her bathing robe, she wore plastic sandals she had bought from a French family from Neuilly and carried a straw bag loaded with all the things she'd need that day, including tanning oil from a colleague at the pharmacy at the State Sanatorium for the Treatment of Lung Diseases in Vysne Hagy. Her Czech colleague really liked her and they would often go off on little trips together into the surrounding area. Jitka, her colleague, had shown her where in Tatranske Matliare the tuberculosis patient Kafka had stayed in 1921. When she had given her the brown bottle with the shiny neck, she had said, "Come back to us tan so that the guys will like you." In addition to the oil, she also had a worn-down brush in the bag, a powder compact (a gift from her godmother), a towel with the words "Mountain-Climbing Division, Slovak Technical School, Bratislava" printed on it, five hundred dinars in an old Indian change purse with a picture of bulls in a pasture, some hairpins, a small piece of glass that she had carried since her childhood because it was supposed to bring her good luck, the novel Pavilion of Women (borrowed from Jitka) by Pearl S. Buck, and a red monogrammed handkerchief. She had to cross the main road and zigzag through honking cars. She took a break in front of a newspaper stand. Which newspaper should she buy? They didn't have any Czechoslovakian ones and the Serbian one Politika ** would be really hard for her to get through. By relying on the basic Russian she retained from school, the pharmacist tried to find her way through the Serbian newspaper's thicket of Cyrillic. After several exhausting attempts, she abandoned Politika and bought the Croatian Vjesnik instead. *** She always lay on the beach in the same spot. She spread out her terrycloth towel and lay on her stomach. She lay there without moving at all, exposed to the strong Adriatic sun. A bloody fire kindled in her head. A fire that did not crackle or smoke, but blazed through the pharmacist's body. She asked herself, "Am I getting old? Some day my fat body will melt away and after all, how many times can I really come to the sea? They recommend that I come here--the worker's committee doesn't have anything against me. It took them ages to find out about my divorce, which was a real miracle. I think that my blood's boiling within me. My stomach has cooled off, though. Why? I would rather be lying on concrete than on this sand that they dragged over here because of those German tourists so they don't have to lay on anything hard. Concrete is definitely more hygienic and at home there's concrete at the swimming pool. Even the fence is made of concrete and imbedded with glass pieces so that the riffraff can't get in for free. How long has it been since I was in a pool? My daughter wanted to take me with her, bur Stano was always against going to the pool because it was crawling with 'creepy critters' and stank to high heaven. Never mind, I comforted my daughter, let's go to the lake in Cana. It's really a lot nicer there. No concrete."
The pharmacist fell asleep. Through her eyes, as she dozed with them cracked slightly open, she could still see the big soles of Mrs. Jurikova's calloused feet. And the engineer's daughter had stepped on a sea-urchin right away, the first day, which ruined her entire precious holiday. She sat nearby, tirelessly devoting herself to her wounded heel, which had retained the silicate spines of that crafty little animal.
A curtain went down in front of the pharmacist's vision. The weaker part of her consciousness called out--there is no demarcation between youth and the beginnings of old age--and the sea-urchin was now an unnaturally large porcupine. Eternity ...
The pharmacist woke up to the strong sound of the surf. She opened her eyes and saw the half-empty beach. Flying shreds of newspapers and and a few sunflowers tossed around by the wind--all this testified to the recent presence of hundreds of people who had been drawn there inexorably as though by some inflexible moral law and were now shifting back to the trade-unionists' resort **** where they would take showers and prepare for dinner. The Montenegrin waiters wore white shirts with wallets strapped to their waists instead of a knife, and pushed carts with heaping piles of cucumber salad. The entire dining room was filled with the smell of olive oil and dill, which the chefs in the resort were apparently trying to use up ...
The pharmacist's stomach was twisting and turning her whole fantasy long. She started gathering her kit. She threw her bathrobe over her shoulder and set out for the piers from which you could walk directly back to the resort. A low growling interrupted the pharmacist's walk. There, in all its scruffiness, sat a gray brindled dog two steps away. The pharmacist had to laugh. The dog was exactly like the howling beast that, early every evening during her youth, had run through the square still called by the Hungarian name Malomter. ***** Even after the war, the inhabitants were termed the "sub-proletariat" by idiotic officials. All the children in Kosice knew about the early-evening invasions of the wandering, neglected, and lice-ridden quadrupeds down into the uncobbled square--hidden behind low-lying bushes. In front of the ground-floor houses, the kind that were everywhere on the Hungarian-Slovak borderland, filled with small, lowland, suburban towns, old ladies sat with their hands folded in their laps and watched for the arrival of the dogs, who promptly went wild and ran through all the puddles barking crazily, reeling from the torment of their thirst. Every six months a small cart would clatter onto the square. It looked like a miniature circus wagon with a small, grated window and was pulled by a funny Rocinante. The horse was mounted by some knacker armed with the insignia of the decontamination committee of the city of Kosice. He twisted his mustache as if he indeed enjoyed his unfortunate task. The future pharmacist stood together with the other kids, eyes wide, near the small park, since the wind cooled you off much faster there than on the square without any trees and its muddy puddles and hot dust. The killer stopped in the middle of the square, opened the door to his wagon, and the children looked into the empty cart. Dogs disappeared one after another into the wagon. Who knows where they ended up--as long as they didn't finish on the surgeon's operating table. He was a young man who kept up friendly relations with the knacker and remunerated him well for each victim provided for his grisly experiments. The knacker wasted his exceptional profits in the pub at the train station or went to spend the night at Irma Szentivanyiova's, the widow of the tax inspector who had died in Ukraine as a Hungarian soldier for the Second Kosice Infantry Battalion ...
The dog stood its ground in front of the pharmacist. Then it approached her cautiously and began licking her hand. She dried off her slopped-up extremity in disgust on her bathrobe and made off quickly for the resort.
She was very much looking forward to the day-long excursion to Dubrovnik. The vacationers could choose between a trip by boat or by coach along the serpentine, switchbacked seaside highway. It seemed completely natural to her that she should choose the first, since for her, raised a "turf woman," this was the more thrilling option.
The upper deck was full. In addition to the unionists from Petrovec, there were also dozens of West German tourists. Big-bellied men with multiple Japanese cameras hung round their necks, looking like Christmas trees, wearing shorts while their big-assed wives wore straw hats to protect themselves from the sun. The women hugged their purses and bags against their floppy chests as if they were afraid of the Mediterranean thieves made legendary by the insurance companies in Frankfurt, Munich, and Freiburg. The Dubrovnik sailors were lazy and slovenly and flopped around the deck among the tourists as though their passengers were the shady, untrustworthy types. The boat went past Boka Kotorska shining in all its whiteness and it was then that the pharmacist, who was sitting on a wooden bench next to a German family with an infant, met Milorad the guide face to face. "Turtle" fell out of his mouth, addressing the pharmacist, and she stuck out her hand through the wire netting on the side of the boat. The turtle was an awkward sprite crawling on the foamy water, its brown armor gleaming verdigris as from ancient times.
The guide Milorad valued teeth and motioned to the pharmacist with his magically crooked index finger. She got up, straightened her wrinkled skirt, and pushed her way through. Milorad put an arm around her shoulder and led her to the opposite side of the boat. The outline of the hill called Lovcen could be seen in the haze over Boka. Milorad nodded his head in its direction: "You see, up there, on the very top, the poet and bishop Njegos is buried in marble." (Milorad addressed the pharmacist with the familiar form of "you" because the local population considered the formal form to be a bad habit dating back to the time when the wife of King Alexander hid herself from the rabble on the terrace of the royal villa in Milocer; she had been guarded by soldiers in bleached nightshirts who had stood erect in front of their white-washed guard booths, which today are in ruins, while the villa has meanwhile been turned into a hotel ...)
"After his death, Njegos's remains were carried by donkeys along the same path by which a count had had a billiard table transported to the castle in Cetinje." Milorad went quiet, raised his arms and joked, "That billiard table freed us Montenegrin people--we became Europeans. Instantly, not little by little, like you Czechs."
"Slovaks," the pharmacist corrected him.
"Yes, yes, the Czechs built us sugar plants in Srem and the Slovaks in Backa." That was Milorad's apology, and then he invited the flattered pharmacist to have a "Turkish coffee" Below deck there as a bar full of western tourists who were viciously concocting a dangerous mixture of beer and double-distillated plum brandy. Meanwhile, the boat was sailing far from the shore that was now hidden behind multiple canals. Flat, rocky islands, deserts without hope, uninhabitable because they were entirely without water sources--all drenched in blinding sun. The red, imitation leather easy chair stuck to the back of the pharmacist's knees and she thought to herself humbly, "Well, it's the devil's own luck that such a gorgeous guy is looking after me. An oldie like me" The outline of the shore drowned behind the islands and began to zigzag through the bulging fish-eye window of the ship's cabin. Milorad managed to reveal to the pharmacist that he was a "smartie," which caused a small grimace to grow on the pharmacist's face. She reminisced. Were her father and her former husband Stano actually intelligent, or were they just, like this guy, "smarties"? The pharmacist knew this type all too well--men like this had showed up on numerous occasions in her life, a pattern both monotonous and a little frightening. Yes, she knew this type: no discretion, never feeling any great responsibility toward his family, lovers, or his creditors, but with a real talent for following impulses, living out ridiculous fantasies. In terms of public utility, a complete zero. On Sundays (when Mama would take a bath and primp herself), Father used to take her on walks along the Hornad River. ****** After having lunch in the Tatra Restaurant, a second-class place in terms of price, he would send her to the movies for a children's show and would go himself to Cafe Slavia for a few games of cards. In his youth, Father had looked like Milorad. A well-groomed mustache and a penchant for hitting on "mature" women. She would see him walk with them in the park behind the tennis courts and then, later on, Father bought a sedan so that they could get out "for some fresh air" as Mother used to say. The daughter would sit in the back with Grandma who was always terrified in the front seat: "Slower, slower, where are you going in such a hurry, the ladies won't get away from you!" and then, egged on, her father would step on the gas, and with a vengeful smile, would pass cars that had been built before the war, with weaker motors. "Hey, look, Dubrovnik," Milorad prattled on.
It was Dubrovnik indeed, Raguza *******--the pearl of the Adriatic. The picture she had seen so many times in all the tourist agencies' brochures, "Montenegro for Tourists." Milorad stood up as soon as he spotted St. Ivan's fortress jutting out, and yet perfectly meshed with the steep slope beneath--thanks perhaps in part to the protective hand of the city's patron, Saint Blaise.
The walls of Dubrovnik had afforded the Austrian Colonel Amerling a real sigh of relief: "Dubrovnik may not be the strongest, but at least it is certainly the most beautiful fortress in the Empire."
Milorad said good-bye to the pharmacist and went to round up the flock of trade-unionists, since the boat was supposed to dock very soon. The pharmacist stayed standing by the folding plank where sailors were smacking their lips and winking, giving her the famous Mediterranean gesture.
"Jerk," said the pharmacist. "Asshole. Don't even think about looking my way."
A young Skipetarka ******** wearing Turkish trousers made of fake silk and carrying an enormous backpack and an infant in her arms attracted the pharmacist's attention. A square peg in a round hole, thought the pharmacist, who knows how she got lost on this tourist boat.
There was great confusion on the piers, the travelers were disembarking and shoving each other while descending the steep plank. Milorad was standing with upraised arms and trying to call together his lost little tourist sheep. The vacationers gathered round him, impatient, they wanted to get into town. The group, which had already been counted multiple times by Milorad, trotted off through the city gate called Pile and, at the guide's gesture, stopped by the polygonal Great Onofrio's Fountain. The tiny Skipetarka, in the shadow of the tourist huddle, soon disappeared into one of the dark, poorly ventilated alleys leading to the main street in Dubrovnik called Preko. Here there were Balkan sweet shops, each glued to the next. The pharmacist also lingered there a bit so she could buy an ice cream. There was a marble plaque with the inscription IHS hanging alongside the entrance to one of the sweet shops.
One of the shops was manned by a man named Skipetar. He was wiping his ice-cream machine with a wet rag. The mixer paddles were slowly turning on in the drink machines. Two flies lay alongside the pastries and cakes.
The pharmacist felt like sitting down, not going anywhere, not returning to the tourist boat.
"Hello, Marienka, how did you wind up over here? The guide's been looking for you. He gave us two and a half hours to shop and went by himself to a cafe. My old girl also went for a soda since she can't take this heat."
The pharmacist set out, her sandals clip-clopping, for the kavana where Milorad was indeed seated, surrounded by tourists, mostly by little ladies whose men had gone off to a store called Dalmatian Wine to get some sort of drink. They examined the prices for a long time, recalculating into crowns, dollars, and then back into dinars, all before deciding for this or that bottle. Milorad left the tourists on the cafe terrace and approached the pharmacist.
"If you'd like, I'll show you the square where they do theater in the evening. No staging--the old houses serve as the coulisses. That's the best backdrop you could have."
The pharmacist nodded. She was in fact a bit curious. Since her divorce, she had received quite a bit of money from Stano. The young assistants from the treatment center bored her with their stereotypical suggestions as to what she should do with her time. Have a coffee in Smokovec, go to the cinema in Lomnica, see a play touring in Poprad. (a) The majority of her coworkers were much younger and already engaged and all they were looking forward to was getting married as soon as their request for larger apartments were approved. She had met Stano when she was in Bratislava visiting her aunt. She had met him in the ant hive of people who had come to see Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space. The Soviet cosmonaut's arrival was preceded by all sorts of dirty jokes at the hero's expense. The pharmacist stood in the crowded street along with all the other citizens who were waiting for her arrival. First the motorcycle police appeared in their white helmets and giant protective gloves. The open-roofed limousine carrying the cosmonaut was moving forward at a slug's pace. They had put the small Russian lady on a pedestal so that people could see her better. The pharmacist was disappointed--she hadn't thought that Tereshkova would look like a country schoolmarm with a perm. Wearing a blue suit and carrying Czechoslovakian and Soviet paper flags in her right hand, she moved through the sweet-smelling tracks left by the antiseptic preparation that had been showered over the car right before the cosmonaut's arrival.
The pharmacist walked alongside Milorad, held his hand and let herself be led among the narrow streets towards Gundulic Square. (b) They passed by women selling vegetables and fruits. Milorad stopped in front of the Jesuit church with the half-collapsed roof and then turned toward the big, old bourgeois-looking house that had belonged at one time to a religious congregation. There was a small, barred window dating from the Renaissance on each floor. The pharmacist followed him up the steep, wooden staircase and thought to herself, "He certainly thinks I'm a real naif. But tine, let him ..."
Milorad led her into a small, whitewashed room. The half-open window was knocking against the window frame, tak, tak, tak. It seemed to the pharmacist that this was the first real sound that she had heard all day. The wall had a lightbulb with no shade and beneath this was an iron bed with a colored blanket and some scattered American magazines. The pharmacist realized that the room had no table or chairs. "This is where I live," Milorad told the pharmacist.
From the street beyond the window, you could hear the cooing of the doves on the fallen tiles of the Jesuit church's roof, and children counting off to play a game of hide and seek, and on the ground floor, two women were arguing in a blend of Italian and Croatian that the pharmacist couldn't understand.
The pharmacist stepped toward the guide and kissed him on the lips.
* The cultural capital of eastern Slovakia and hometown of the author, Dusan Simko.
** The primary daily in Belgrade.
*** Daily paper in Zagreb.
**** A recreational center for those belonging to the Revolutionary Trade-Union Movement (ROH).
***** "Miller's Square" in Hungarian.
****** This river flows through the Low Tatras Mountains into the region termed the "Slovak Paradise"
******* Raguza is the Italian name for Dubrovnik.
******** "Skipetarka" (female) or "Skipetar" (male) denotes an Albanian from Kosovo.
(a) Three locations in the Tatras Mountains.
(b) Ivan Gundulic, also known as Giovanni Gondola, lived from 1589-1638. He was a wellknown Croatian poet/dramatist of the Baroque Era, and wrote in Croatian, Italian, and Latin.
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|Publication:||The Review of Contemporary Fiction|
|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2010|
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