I had just gotten old enough and had put in enough years of work to retire trouble-free, when my system failed.
My whole life I had been involved in groundless investments and financial schemes, and now I finally decided not to get mixed up in any new ones. My pension was barely enough to keep me and my old woman alive, with occasional “tourism” excursions to Salonica, Trieste, and Sofia.
I got my children employed thanks to my veteran status, and they became independent in spite of the fact that we all lived under one roof in an enlarged house. And we shared the same heating system, which was located in the basement of the old part of the house, where I lived.
In the meantime, just when we switched from a single-party to a multi-party system, my old-fashioned, shared heating system failed, so our mutual system deprived us of its previous services. And because winter came not only to the door, but also into the house, I called on my pluralistic children to form some kind of coalition against cold, even if an unprincipled one, as long as it was efficacious.
With this I want to emphasize that it was not the social system that failed us, but only the domestic. However, the city continued to use all possible fuels, filling its hat with the air of every known smoke. Only those who had electric heat had to squint, not so much because of the outside smoke, but because of the weak voltage.
My children came to the designated meeting, but each with an expert from his very own party. Because they were all opposed to one another, I could not get them to sit at the normal rectangular kitchen table, but only at the round table in the guest room, which I elongated like a fried egg. So we arranged ourselves like delegates to the General Assembly of the UN. My wife, without our daughters and daughters-in-law, in order to secure objectivity, served us only a cup of coffee each and a glass of mineral water.
At this designated meeting it so happened that we all had different opinions. One faction suggested that the defect in the system should be sought in the chimney, another that the problem was in the boiler, a third in the pipes,
a fourth in the number of radiator ribs, and the last in the system in general. While each party over exaggerated its own projection, that is, inflated its views, I kept minutes for internal use, cooling my flabby ass on the dead radiator.
Never ever install a central heating system, that’s what my experience should tell you. Whenever something goes wrong, it’ll all fall on one person, and it’s your head. Even the old people have said that we should not all fart in the same pumpkin. This wisdom may have been passed down from the time when the ancient Slavs not only breathed with reeds in their mouths during their advances through the marshes, but also farted through separate reeds, which gave rise, most probably, to the different Slavic tribes, from the Baltics to Malta, so that now they do not assemble even to see each other, not even to enjoy a baked pumpkin together.
As for me, having had bookkeeping experience, I retreated to the kitchen to summarize the minutes, transforming the suggestions into numbers and sipping from the brandy reserved for guests. When I arrived at the approximate sum, my hair stood on end, each hair separately: it was as much as five of my pensions–annual, not monthly–even considering Ante’s guarantee that the living standard will increase in proportion to the sizes of our clothing. But how can one live on speculation?
I returned to the guest room, without the brandy for guests, but with the calculations in my hand. Perhaps I appeared pale to them, because they all looked at me as though seeing me off to the Butel cemetery. I sat among them and continued to listen to their inter-party squabbling, which should have led to a trans-party system. Everyone, once arriving at his opinion, stood on it no matter how devalued it became in the process. No one gave ground, not my daughters before my sons-in-law, nor my sons behind my daughters-in-law. They all clutched to their opinions as if they were rods and not reeds.
What could I do except let the young powers have a try at my flanks and wait breathlessly for me to declare my own position?
First came those who held that the failure of the system was in the chimney. They bored through the roof and built a new chimney, stouter and sturdier than the previous one. Then they tested it with a burning ball of newspaper and concluded that now everything was all right. However, though the chimney stood higher than the highest peak of the roof, the heating system did not work.
After them came those who maintained that the malfunction was in the boiler. They brought a new boiler, of greater capacity and more recent design, and tossed the old one among the trash in the backyard. However, no one was interested in it as scrap metal and, furthermore, the new boiler worked no better.
That’s not the way it is, said those who surmised that the problem was in the pipes. And they started to rip through the house, from the floor to the ceiling and along all the walls, installing new pipes and discarding the old ones as if they were slats from a wooden fence. Then the fourth faction intervened, the rib-counters. They measured the cubic capacity of the radiators and eventually concluded that a greater number of ribs was necessary and that some of the old ones needed reconstruction.
Finally came those who questioned the entire system. They inspected conditions, comparing the old to the new situation, and after pressing every button, found that the system did not operate.
I lacked the courage to call everyone to a new consultation because the whole thing was doomed to failure from the start. How can you fill a sack with horns and still expect to have a sack?
The sack, of course, was me. Though no one counted on me any longer, including myself, I still remembered the old saying that an empty sack does not stand upright.
And the horns, forgive my saying so, are the young. Blinded by their own power, persuaded that they are right, being so full of themselves, they waste at least half of their energy jostling each other aside, instead of cooperating.
Once I realized that the heating system would never work, I gathered the balance of my pension and left for the old market. There at the tinsmith’s I bought wood stoves for everyone, stacked them onto a wheelbarrow and swerved home with them. I distributed them, one to each of the newly founded parties, along with the stove pipes. Then I rejoined my old woman and threw a handful of chestnuts on the fire.
See now, I said to myself, how the system can work?
What, said my old woman agreeably, are you roasting chestnuts?
I am roasting chestnuts, I repeated as if to one hard of hearing, but I was thinking of the system.
What system, what kind of system? Complained my old woman, now becoming confused. What is this system? She asked, expressing an interest though already hopelessly hunched over.
Stirring the chestnuts with tongs, I also pondered the question, and patiently replied:
A system, my old one, is when the husband will not bring wood, the sun will not chop it, the daughter-in-law will not start the fire, you will not cook the stew, and the neighbor will still pat you on the back. Got that?
I got it, but I don’t have teeth for these chestnuts, not to mention the system. You don’t, but the young do. Teeth for cracking.
Then it came upon me. I enjoyed the aroma of the roasted chestnuts without realizing that what came upon me was the sweet monoxide of the stove from childhood.
From anthology of Macedonian short stories “Change of the System”, Skopje, 2001, MAGOR
Translated by Zoran Ančevski and Richard Gaughran