by Maja Novak
translated from the Slovenian by Tom Lozar
It all began innocently enough. What happened was nothing worse than this: Robbie Pirnat leaned a little too far over the railing of the sixth-floor balcony and fell. And a stranger happened to be passing by who did not hesitate—not that he had time to think, and who knows what he might have decided had he had the time—who did not hesitate to place himself where the child was about to land, and who opened his arms wide. A millionth of a second later, the two of them were rolling around on the ground. The stranger had cracked ribs; Robbie was screaming just like a guy selling strawberries in the street.
And then all at once, on the expanse of asphalt at the foot of the six high-rises, there appeared, out of thin air, an ant colony of people, as if God had improvised them for this very moment, and then, granted, a little late but with their whole heart in it, Robbie’s parents arrived, shouting. In their excitement, they doubtless would have caused more harm than good had they been able to push their way through the throng to Robbie and his savior. With that customary
yelp, which the brain registers as mute bluish thunderbolts behind the eyes, two ambulances then roared up. Into the first went Robbie, who was perfectly fine but frightened to death; the stranger, hugging himself to hold his ribs in place, followed after. They took the stranger gently by the shoulders and showed him that the second ambulance was the one meant for him, but no, he insisted, no, he wanted to ride with the boy, he had saved his life, so he was responsible for him, or at least he had to carry out his duties to the very end, no two ways about it, he had to go to the hospital with the boy and sit in the emergency room waiting for news of the boy’s condition, and when that was taken care of—he said—he could return by bus, because he didn’t have the money for a taxi, and let the second ambulance take him away so they could have a look at his ribs, too. They had a hard time convincing him that things didn’t work that way.
The TV crew was at the hospital ahead of the ambulance. Cinéma verité-style they got the mother’s face, puffy from crying and ten years of comfort food, and they got a nice pan of the father’s hairy arm laid patronizingly across the mother’s shoulder; and that lady, from behind a mountain of soggy paper hankies, told the camera in a strangulated voice that she was so grateful, but, really, so grateful to the stranger, she couldn’t even say how grateful, she would do anything, but anything, for him, and she meant anything, to repay him; forever they would keep him in their thoughts and in their hearts, forever they would remember him in their prayers, his picture they would put on the piano in the living room and surround it with flowers, and on wintry days, with the apartment nice and warm, they would show this picture to their grandchildren (Robbie’s potential children) and tell them solemnly, resonantly, as if reminding them of an ancient family oath, “If it wasn’t for this man, you wouldn’t be here either.”
The director was happy. At the head of a parade of lighting guys, cameramen, and the guy carting the camera, he headed for the rescuer, because now he wanted more. The rescuer had just been wrapped in a kilometer of bandages, and his name was Bootso and he was Bosnian. Bootso, the Bosnian.
They asked him what he thought about everything, how he liked his noble role and all.
“A shta bih, what else?” said Bootso, shrugging his shoulders. This far into his speech he spoke his language, but, hey, everyone understood.“
Anyone would have done the same,” he added when they kept at him. This he said in Slovenian. He had learned, hadn’t he, after his years up here?
They asked him how he felt.
“How? Good,” he said, he said bilingually, after giving it some thought. He seemed surprised, amazed that people thought there was some other way to feel than good.
Did he have any special desires?
“No, I don’t,” he said in his language, but everyone understood. He was surprised. And then after a pause longer than the last, as if uncertain of the ethical and logical appropriateness of the sentence he was about to utter, he added hesitantly, “Maybe, I guess, what I want is for the youngster to get better as fast as he can.”
Given the communicational inhibitions of the performer, this part of the reportage was quite a bit shorter than the first.
But it was enough, together with the moving image of mother-in-tears, for Mrs. Pirnat to be bathed in tears again two days later in front of the TV. In tears for all the woe she had suffered, and in her frayed voice—the one that her consort and the elder son and the daughter and Robbie had long ago learned to obey more quickly than the sharpest command—in her frayed voice, she suggested that, to show their gratitude, they should invite this saintly man to supper.
If she had had any idea what she was getting into, she would no doubt have jumped off the balcony herself.
For the rest of the week, they ate canard à l’orange, because that was what was planned for the formal dinner with guest, and Mrs. Pirnat had never done duck before and she didn’t want it to turn out bad the night Bootso, the honored guest, would be there, so she needed to practice a little. They bought candles, they consulted about the wine, and then, on the night of nights, they sat down around the table and waited. They waited the fifteen minutes you give a professor late for his lecture, and then another quarter-hour, and then a third. The duck, which in this latest test had turned out really fine, was covered now with a sticky crust of fat. An hour plus another half-hour later, somebody laid the weight of his whole body on the doorknob, which action had no effect whatever, because the door was locked. This same someone then ignored the doorbell, nor did he knock; he slammed his shoulder into the door because he couldn’t for the life of him imagine that the door of the apartment to which you are invited to supper could possibly be locked. So the elder Pirnat son graciously lifted himself from the table and went to unlock the door; the hostess pattered after him, first secretly adjusting the position of the vase, expecting, it goes without saying, the bouquet the guest would bring. And in marched Bootso, unaware that he was late, as a matter of fact he didn’t know such a concept of time existed; in he came and pushed into the bosom of the hostess—actually she intercepted just ahead of her bosom—a bottle of slivovitz wrapped in newspaper. The vase sighed in disappointment and died.
“We were afraid you weren’t coming,” said Papa Pirnat, throwing out the hook which was supposed to land excuses.
“Not come? But, people, we said we were having supper, right?” He spoke half in his language, half in Slovenian, believing himself to be speaking Slovenian. The Slovenians, proud of their linguistic abilities, believed he was speaking his language.
At any rate, fine, the guest is always right, especially if he’s saved your son’s life. You have to be patient with him, you have to understand him. He’s underprivileged, it’s not his fault he doesn’t know manners; at any rate, we Pirnats are neither racists nor fuddy-duddies. Acting as a unit, they steered him over to the table. He sat down and lit a cigarette using the candle.
“Ahem. You know, we’re all nonsmokers at our house,” Mama Pirnat opened the conversation affably.(Dictionary of the Slovenian Literary Language (DSLL), Volume III, p. 720: pogovor (conversation): 1. Something you have to engage in, especially at formal suppers.)
Replying with like affability, except that his sentiments were real, Bootso in amazement said, “No? Oh no, don’t tell me you’re sick?”
They were silent, feeling that the conversation was slipping out of their hands.
But, hey, Bootso figured it out for himself.“
Oh, I get it, you don’t have an ashtray. Not to worry, lady. A plate’ll do fine.”
(Three weeks later, in the elevator, the woman next door gave Mrs. Pirnat the tongue-lashing of her life, what was she doing inviting
people who in this very same elevator smoke like chimneys, like Turks, and, what’s more, who do not stop smoking when, with eyebrows raised, you let them know that such interference with the rights and liberties of fellow passengers is the sort of thing the ombudsman should look into? But this was three weeks later.)
Then the duck marched on stage, a little stiff, it should be added, from rigor mortis. Bootso takes a leg in his hands and chews and chews and chews. The others eat, too, though they’ve had it up to here with canard à l’orange.
“Don’t belch,” quoth Papa Pirnat to Robbie.
“So why can he?” asks Robbie, rocking on his chair, watching Bootso with great interest.
Bootso is chewing; he chews with concentration, undisturbed by what goes on around him.
Robbie smiles at Bootso, Bootso smiles at Robbie. They like each other, they do. The Pirnats’ daughter, seventeen, flares her nostrils theatrically.
The rest of the family suffers bravely; he saved their son, they are grateful, what are these trivia to them? They want to converse with him (DSLL, III, 720: pogovarjati se (to converse): to let someone know through conversation that he is not unwanted). What’s the use? Bootso hasn’t read the DSLL, he does not know how to converse, he opens his mouth only when he really sincerely has something to say, for instance, “Good duck, lady, except too bad you put it in the orange juice. Next time try it with just the fat, you’ll see, it’ll be better.”
The Pirnats feel trapped: they’ve had it with their guest, but what to do? He saved their son, they don’t dare pass judgment, they wouldn’t dare hate him, so they observe him and look painstakingly for something about him to like. Robbie has already found this something, but, hey, Robbie is six, his discoveries and his value judgments he still expresses so incoherently that he’s hardly in a position to advise. There are the Pirnats, stealing glances, passing messages with their eyes, insisting, swearing, promising, guaranteeing, convincing one another and themselves that Bootso is one great guy (he saved their son), all that is needed is to get to know him better, and they will find, beneath the rough exterior, pure gold. So, finally, after they have managed to pour some of the slivovitz into themselves, because Bootso insists and will not take no for an answer (he did bring it with the best of intentions, didn’t he?), and after they have all managed to quell their belching, somebody says (and there will later be much quarreling about just who it was that pulled the stupid stunt), “Please, will you come again next week?”
Now Bootso has a problem; they’re nice, the family, the supper was fine, the kid he saved is cute, he’s got nothing against the Pirnats, but truth be told he would a week from today prefer to be in his rooming house, in front of the TV, because the Italians are playing the Dutch, and there he would be sitting quietly, with a bottle of warm beer in his hand, naked to the waist, unwashed, surrounded by his construction buddies maybe, safely wrapped in the communal silence and the impregnable curtain of smoke, but, hey, duty is duty. He saved their child, he became a part of their lives and they a part of his, and a link like that only death can break. What has to be has to be, so the invitation causes him some problems, but it’s not like it’s causing him pain deep in his soul, and so, as decisively as he caught their boy, he accepts the invitation for a week from tonight.
Tomi, the elder son, sixteen years old and a cynic, says to Robbie, after the door has shut, has been locked, has been bolted behind Bootso:
“The next time you fall off the balcony, make sure there’s nobody underneath.”
For this he receives a formative shot in the mouth.
Mama Pirnat buries her face behind her polished fingernails and weeps, as she has not wept since the day she lost her virginity, and the seventeen-year-old laughs sneakily, as she has not laughed since the day she lost hers.
Paterfamilias calls a war council.
You have to be gentle with Bootso, he says to the older heirs; you have to understand him, you have to empathize with his inner self, his world, his thoughts, his difficulties; they must—you understand, you must, you, Tomi, you, following the liberal arts path in high school, you will one day have to know that this is called a categorical imperative—they have to connect with him, break through the communicational blockade, bridge the cultural differences, the hundreds of years of cultural separation, they have to start talking with him, that is to say, uttering utterances that really mean something, that’s it, that’s what needs doing, they have to live in his life, and then it will become clear to all of them what a really wonderful person Bootso is.
Sure, empathize, enter his world, but how?
They feverishly mine for some noble characteristic, any noble characteristic, that might help them feel grateful, yes—but, they ask themselves in terror, how can you understand what noble instinct drives you to come late to supper, to terrorize nonsmokers, to criticize the hostess’s cooking though moments before you were smacking your lips and belching and licking your fingers; what noble instinct makes you guzzle that slivovitz, that disgusting, that . . . after which all you can do is belch, dammit, though that’s not acceptable, of course . . . ? That Bootso might beyond all this do some other things, which they could perhaps empathize with, occurs, of course, to none of them in their blessed simplicity. And so, like a cat chasing its tail, they fruitlessly twirl around for a week trying to solve the enigma named Bootso.
With a similar lack of success, they rummage about looking for themes that they might broach with this good, if somewhat difficult person who saved their son.
“You’re the scholar, Tomi, be constructive,” snaps Father.
“What about religion?” Tomi suggests with the voice and face of a professional poker player. “How’s about if we try to get inside his faith? He’s a Muslim, right?”
“Buy the Koran and start studying,” the father orders, for the nth time falling for one of his son’s practical jokes.
Tomi buys a Koran, folio edition, and spends a week looking at porn he hides inside. And gets away with it; at the supper which the Pirnats have been anticipating with a lump in their throats as if awaiting a second chance at an exam they’ve flunked, there isn’t time for one single word about Islam. Because Bootso shows up with a cheap plastic car, a car that’s tiny tiny but rides around like a real one and is, to Robbie, the recipient, an endless source of joy; he shows up with that and a small, banged-up transistor radio, which he places by his plate, and then amid loud slurping (this time it’s pasul, bean stew, one of his dishes and cheaper than French stuff) he listens at maximum volume to the Italians playing the Dutch, dead to the rest of the world.
“I hope this doesn’t bother you,” he says affably in his native tongue, at halftime.
They understand, and understandingly say that it doesn’t.Nor do they surrender. Fine, so they’ll try to enter his world (it doesn’t occur to them that soccer might be a suitable subject) next week. At supper.
It is after that supper that the protest in the elevator is registered. Then, during the fourth, Tomi, who has secretly been smoking since seventh grade, pulls out a pack at just the moment when Bootso lights his fifteenth cigarette; the guest understandingly offers his cigarette for the boy to light up at its smoldering tip. When Bootso has taken his farewell, Mother Pirnat takes a fit and accuses the savior of her younger lambkin of corrupting her older. The ram hasn’t the slightest intention of explaining how things really stand with him and smoking. “Empathizing,” is all he says, shrugging his shoulders.
After the fifth supper, the neurotic seventeen-year-old Pirnat filly tattles out loud that Bootso has been trying to get her into bed. Just before the mother has a heart attack, Father Pirnat intervenes in the all-round howling, and in what he says there is a surprisingly large portion of good sense: maybe Bootso meant less than he said, perhaps the girl imagined more than she heard, as for that it is not entirely impossible that the brat thought the whole thing up. In dubio pro reo, adds Pirnat, who is a lawyer; what have we got left except to comfort ourselves with doubt, since we’ve invited him to supper number six anyways.
“I can’t take it anymore,” says Mrs. Pirnat in her frayed voice, the one against which there is no appeal—she says this the night before the last supper—“I can’t take it anymore, and that’s that, I know we invited him, I know it’s only right, he did rescue the child, it’s not his fault that he is the way he is, poor man, but my nerves are shot, you all know I’m not a chauvinist, I have nothing against feeding and watering him once a week, we have to be grateful, I would do anything for him, why I would bathe him, and he does need it, but this is it, I’ve had it, I cannot survive one more supper, basta.” And she weeps.
“There, there, Mother,” says Mr. Pirnat.
“These suppers with Bootso must stop,” adds Tomi in a manly voice. “They must stop tonight.”
“Oh yeah, so what are you going to say to him?” bursts out the seventeen-year-old, the very one from whom for a while now nobody has expected anything, the one who, if the truth be known, is the family champion at entering Bootso’s world. “What’re you going to say to him, ‘Molim lepo (she breaks into the language of Bootso’s world), please, next Sunday don’t show up’? You know what he’s going to say? (She breaks into sort of his language again.) He’ll say, ‘But, people, why not?’” She finishes in Slovenian: “That’s exactly what he’s going to say, and he’ll look stunned on top of it all.”
“You’re probably right,” murmurs the father, “and the truth we can’t tell him, because it would hurt his feelings . . .”
“If he’s got any . . .”
“You keep quiet, Tomi. As I said, if he has feelings, we mustn’t hurt those . . .”
“We can’t just say nothing either,” the daughter continues passionately, “because if we only say goodbye without singing that regular chorus of ours, ‘Come again next week,’ he will, despite the fact that we haven’t specifically invited him, I mean despite the fact that we have specifically not invited him, show up in a week’s time on his own, the way he always does, right on time . . .”
“Right on time?”
“Well, you know what I mean.”
“Valium,” rasps the mother, pointing with her manicured nails at the drawer of the night-table, “valium . . .”
“What if we pushed him off the balcony? Or killed him with food-poisoning? I bet Mom could pull that off . . . The dead don’t have feelings we can hurt.” From Tomi.
For five seconds they quite seriously weigh this option.
“Nah, we can’t,” Tomi finally decides. “He’s still human, after all.”
“And we are human, too, and that is why we do not kill other humans,” agrees the categorical-imperative expert, Papa Pirnat.
There follows about ten pages’ worth of silence.
“May I suggest a liberal-arts-path solution,” the enlightened Tomi finally speaks up. “Let’s lie. It’s simple; we smile, we look him in the eye, and we wail a little: dearest Bootso, our hearts are broken, but next week we cannot meet, for we will not be in town, we’re going to the cottage, we have to, you know, quite unexpectedly a great misfortune has befallen us, the roof of the garage has caved in. And it did, right, four years ago?”
“Are you going to bring up the damn roof again? Did I or did I not buy the lumber to fix it?” Father Pirnat.
“Yes, you did. It’s been lying there for four years now.” Mother Pirnat. The change of theme does her nerves a ton of good.
The seventeen-year-old, off in her own world, is playing with the valium box, wondering whether she dare light up a cigarette in front of her mother. “So what are you going to say if you run into him on the street and you’re supposed to be at the cottage?” she says.
“Who says I’ll run into him?”Another volcanic eruption: “Because he’s everywhere, don’t you understand, the city is full of him, they’re everywhere these guys, that’s why he was under the balcony when Robbie fell.” She lights her cigarette. Nobody notices.
“Fine,” says Tomi, “so we’ll really go to the cottage.”
“What, I’m supposed to throw away my precious vacation so I can go fix the damn roof ?”“Well, it’s about time . . .” Mama Pirnat once more.
“Cool down, old man, you don’t have to fix anything. You’ll be at the cottage in your bathing suit and socks, lying on the rubber raft in front of the portable TV, Mom’ll be warming up the cans on the little heater, my cow of a sister will be taking the sun, and me and Robbie, we’ll go looking for mushrooms and then fish, we’ll relax, all of us, and no Bootso anywhere, do you understand, no Bootso. Christ, say something, yes or no?”
Yes or no? Yes! And how!
The flowers are singing, the birds are blooming, the Pirnats are at the cottage, the sun’s rays pierce through whispering treetops, the lumber is busy drying on the lee side of the white, white cottage, requiescat in pacem, Mother lifts her eyes from her embroidery and a shriek of horror escapes from her throat. Bootso is coming up the gravel driveway. A knapsack on his back, a toolbox in one hand, he’s wearing his blue workday overalls, a hole in one of the knees.
“Zdravo, lyudi.” In all his glory he speaks to them in his native tongue. “Hello, people, here I am, I’ve come to help you with the roof.”
His face is aglow, he has not been this happy in a long, long time, this is the real thing, here he can be useful, he’s really had his fill of the suppers, he missed England against the Spaniards, he even missed the biggest basketball game of all, Cibona against Maccabi, his buddies from the construction site are making fun of him, lovely, lovely, what a gentleman he’s become, we’re not good enough for him anymore, they don’t understand, he saved their son and now the Slovenians are his family, and a family is a family in good times and bad, you have to accept it the way Allah gave it to you, you can’t complain about it, but a man has to do something to take care of his family, too, make something nice for them, something real, that bit with the little one, that was nothing, anybody would have done it, and then they were so nice to him, he’s been thinking and thinking what he might do for them, and here it is, their roof caved in, and what, they’re intellectuals, right, they’re Slovenians, what do they know about things like that, and he’s a trained carpenter, if they don’t need him now, then when?
And he says to them in his native tongue, “Aymo, lyudi, let’s go, people, let’s get to work.” In Slovenian he says to Mr. Pirnat, “First-class wood you’ve got there. It’s as if it’s been drying for four years.”
He scurries like a squirrel up to the roof of the garage, he’s whistling, he makes himself a pulley thing and brings the wood up, he works on the rafters, he’s nailing down the lumber, the hammer sings, Bootso sings: “Brew me up some coffee, dusho (soul of mine). (What a language, eh?) One warm beer after another disappears down his gullet: “Okay, boss, jump in your car and bring us another twenty-four.” Now he’s covering the pine with the Canadian asphalt shingles: “All right, young lady, wake up, you’ve got the legs, go get me some more.” He sweats like a horse, he does everything himself, he’s in a hurry, it wasn’t easy getting a week off from the construction site. The Pirnats do what they can, hey, everybody’s got to pitch in, calluses pop open, there’s sawdust in their hair, boy have they got a pain in their backs. Then the week of construction is over, the precious vacation has ended. The roof now—that roof is the sort of roof no garage has ever seen the likes of. They return to the city, they give Bootso a ride, of course, the man hasn’t got enough money to be spending it needlessly on buses. They drop him off at the rooming house (invite him to supper in a week’s time), they just have the energy to drive the car around the corner, and Father Pirnat collapses on the steering wheel. Mother Pirnat lowers her head to the dashboard.
“You can go ahead and tell me I am an ungrateful sow,” she howls angrily, “but there will be no sign of me here a week from today.”
“Where can we hide?” the children ask practically.
“Turn around, it’s back to the cottage,” says Tomi decisively.
“Are you crazy,” his sister screams. “He’ll find us there just like that.”
They decide on a motel on the coast, in Ankaran.
And when a week later they throw open the shutters and are rubbing their sleepy eyes, looking in the direction of every Slovenian citizen’s birthright, thirty-seven centimeters of beach sand and muddy sea, their eyes on the misty sun, whom do they see smiling at them from behind a bottle of warm beer, sitting under the awning of the café at the other side of the parking lot?
“Hello, people, here I am, I’ve come to invite you to supper tonight, my treat.” In his language, which they understand.
He’s picked out the place and everything, a really nice little grill on the beach, they serve chevapchichi and dzhulbastiya and kidney-bean stew, all you can eat.
Before dawn the next morning, the Pirnats flee to Postoyna, of the world-famous caves and stuff.
And that’s about it.
For whom should they espy, peeking out elf-like from behind transparent stalactites and jewel-like stalagmites, from behind the veil of ringing water drops in the world-famous cave? And then whose shadow falls over the picture of paradise they see while floating on Lake Bled? Who is that strolling in the old town in Maribor when the Pirnats are strolling there too? Who is that sliding down the water slide at the spa in Chateshke Hot Springs? Whose footsteps
echo under the vaults and down the corridor in the priory at Stichna where the Pirnats seek peace and spiritual solace? Who is that person hiding under the cloak of the Blessed Virgin in the pilgrims’ church at Ptuyska Mountain? Who is the young man laughing in the vineyard in Dolensko? Who comes riding up on a Lippizaner to meet their carriage, who comes galloping, rather, for didn’t he learn to ride, bareback, before he got his first pair of pants? Who is drinking a cup of coffee guess where, and who forms the only vertical standing out from the horizontal of the blue poppy fields at Beltintsy? But that’s enough of a list, tourist brochures we have aplenty, thank you, on this sunny side of the Alps, too many, and some more depressing than this text.
The Pirnats were last seen in Szombathely, Hungary, at the exact moment when Bootso was spotted crossing the Slovenian-Hungarian border at Dolga Vas. Mother Pirnat is talking divorce, and the seventeen-year-old is planning her getaway with a croupier she met in one of Slovenia’s famous casinos at some point during the family’s flight.
Fact is, good sex can heal the worst spiritual traumas.
And now a final sentence—
— listen I know it’s going to sound pathetic and pretentious, but I can’t help it, we are who we are, I’ve got to write it down, I came up with it myself (about philosophy I know about as much as Papa Pirnat, so it’s not like I copied it from Lacan or Hobbes or Wittgenstein—or, rather, tell me, what philosopher is currently the latest thing in Slovenia?), whatever, here it is—
—we can never enter fully into another’s being; we can’t read anyone’s thoughts; we can never understand somebody else, at best we can learn a person by heart, and if sometimes it seems to us that we predicted correctly what somebody was going to do, it’s merely a phenomenon of statistical probability; nobody is anything but an island, the situation is hopeless, and one fine morning for no reason at all we’re going to smother one another with the whitest duvet while we’re asleep.
Maja Novak was born in 1960 in Jesenice, Slovenia. She holds a law degree from the Law Faculty in Ljubljana and has received several prizes for her work. She has published four novels—Izza kongresa, ali umor v teritorialnih vodah (Behind the Congress, or Murder in Territorial Waters, 1993), Cimre (Roommates, 1995), Karfanaum (Karfanaum, 1998) and Ma ja kuga (Cat Plague, 2000)—a collection of short prose, Zverjad (Wild Beasts, 1996), and three books for children. Her work has been translated into several languages. (4/2006)
Tom Lozar has written for Canadian newspapers, such as The Globe and Mail (Toronto) and The Gazette (Montreal), and magazines, such as The Canadian Forum and Maisonneuve. He also publishes regularly in Slovenian publications. For the past three years, he has written a column in the Maribor daily, Vecer. He is translator of a collection by the important Slovenian poet Edvard Kocbek, At the Door at Evening (1990), and also of a poem that he considers one of the greatest of the twentieth century, Gregor Strniša’s “There Was a Tiger Here.” (4/2006)