It’s for the third time in my life that I’m carrying someone’s cross. I’m the first one in the procession. Next to me there is a gravedigger, a very young guy, who leads the way. I’m dizzy with the heat. I think of cold beer. Is it inappropriate at this moment? I watch the tombs. Marble is expensive, I think. Some of these portraits are quite successful. Here’s my technical education teacher… and the former mayor… Finally, we reach the open grave. Above it, there is a small stone plate, with two egg-shaped porcelain photographs. His wife is on one of them. She died some twenty years ago.
He’s on the other one, only very young.
Grannies know their role well. They must’ve had a shot before, to oil their voices. I prop the cross to a fence and I move away from this entire circus.
I light a cigarette.
He was a distant relative, but a neighbor as well. Emil Pavlov, the Spaniard. He lived alone in a two-storey house across from ours. A widower, no children; a former clerk at the oil refinery. After the second heart attack they sent him to disability retirement. Despite the prohibition of the doctors, he continued to drink. He destroyed himself permanently.
I used to spend a good deal of the day at his place since I was a kid. My folks didn’t stop me. I kind of liked his chaos of books, records, comics, erotic magazines. On the walls, there were strange veneer collages that his father made, an icon of St. Nicolas, a huge poster of Bijelo Dugme and posters of Lennon, Demis Roussos, Indeksi. He had a band of his own when he was young. He played at dances. I watched him with long hair and an earring on photos. When he returned from the army, he made a trio with two other friends and played Mexican songs that were so popular back then. He taught me how to sing: Malagueñas, Granada, Mama Juanita, Besa me mucho. He had a bunch of singles that we played on his Tosca.
Spain was his dreamland. He knew everything: area, number of inhabitants, climate, all about the Civil War, good deal of Lorca’s and Machado’s poetry. He said that one day he would sell the house and leave to some Andalusian village.
… I’ll walk barefoot on the hot sand. I’ll wear white pants with the legs rolled up, unbuttoned shirt and a straw hat. I’ll have a dog called Paco. I’ll smoke long thin cigarettes…, I’ll write poems.
He wanted to live.
The alcohol was killing him. His nerves were a wrack. I watched him from the window (back then I used to write all night long), as he was coming home, staggering, before dawn. He was arguing with some imaginary person. He cussed the government, the state. He was no longer Dickens’s Micawber, a likeable cheerful fellow. Sometimes the neighbors called the police. They’d pick him up for a night to sober him up and then they’d let him go again.
Once, as they were pushing him in the van, he noticed me standing on the balcony. He lifted his hand, clenched in a fist as if being arrested as a radical political dissident and yelled as much as he could: Fidel, no paseran, Fidel… no paseran!!! I saluted him back with a clenched fist. He was already in the van.
They put him in a sanatorium – addiction department.
On a Sunday in July I decided to visit him. I first went to the car market to get some parts for my Citroen 2CV, then I had a bite in front of a kiosk. I took a taxi.
“Good morning, where to?” asked the cab driver. (He looked like Ron Jeremy).
“Mental health institution in Bardovci.”
“Great! Haven’t been there for a long time.”
He was a nice guy. As we drove, he told me how he’d worked at the Iron Works, he lost his job, first he sold Bingo tickets, then he picked snails, mushrooms and all other stuff. He offered me Rothmans.
“Go on, light one of these chocolate ones. Branko smokes them. A customer left them for me this morning. I smoke Yugoslavia myself (laughter).”
“Can I play some music?” he asked, shoving through a pile of tapes.
He plays it. (… Cantando bajo la luna… La vida es sueno…). He started humming.
“From my time. That was music, now it’s all crap.” Singing became louder. As if he wanted to show me that he knew the whole song.
I knew it too…
I kind of imagined the place differently. It was a huge building with bars on its windows; strange sounds came from them: screams, blows of some iron thing; someone on the first floor sang Bandiera Rossa as loud as he could. I passed by a man who sat on a rock and read an ancient Politika Ekspres upside down. He moved his head from left to the right, following the lines with his eyes. When he noticed me, he pulled a concerned face and murmured to himself in Serbian: Again some shit in Beirut.
I saw him sitting on a bench with a nurse. He was explaining her something, waving his hands. She laughed. When he saw me, he was happy.
“Fidel, que passa? Great that you came. I’m planning to escape tonight.” He told this mockingly, as if playing a joke on the nurse. “Meet Dolores!”
Her name was Ena. She was barely thirty. She had a round face, green eyes, a cognac colored hair and a bronze complexion that was even more visible because of the white uniform. You could tell she had been on a holiday. She was sitting at the edge of the bench with her legs crossed. Her clogs were taken off. Her nail polisher was pink, her lipstick too.
“Dolores is the most beautiful thing here. I wrote her a poem.” He said and touched her hand. Then he turned to me. “How are you? How are your folks?”
“We’re well. They all say hello. I brought you some apricots, from your own yard. Here are some Alan Ford comics too.”
He took the bag with the apricots and handed it to Ena. They started to eat them.
“He’s a writer, you know.” He said chewing. “She reads a lot, especially when she works night shrift… Say, who’s your favorite author?”
They called her. I watched her moving. Her walk was gracious. Her shirt was stuck to her skin.
“So, what do you say? Isn’t she gorgeous?”
“She’s a picture.”
“Now I can light a cigarette. Give me one.” He lit it. He inhaled deeply, as if it was his last one. Looking at it he said, I promised her I won’t drink anymore. Only beer.
He was changed somehow. His eyes were puffy, his hair longer. He chain-smoked three cigarettes. His hands shook. The joy disappeared from his face. He couldn’t stand it. He started crying silently. I touched his shoulder. I was supposed to say something.
“Life is a struggle. We should fight.” I don’t know where this banal phrase came from.
“You’re wrong my boy.” He raised his head. He didn’t cry any more. “Life is a dream. La vida es sueno.” He sighed deeply. “Except that I had mine.”
The funeral ceremony ends. Some of the relatives want to give me a lift. I refuse them. I walk to the city from the graveyard. I think of Dolores. I feel a strong wish to see her, tell her He’s gone, put her head on my chest when she starts crying, run my fingers through her hair, kiss her on the top of her head, drown in her perfume. I’ll write her a poem. Many poems.
Some kids played basket on a parking lot. I leaned on a car and watched them. They argued. They wanted me to referee if one of them made treble. A small black dog appeared from under the car and pushed into my feet. I took him. He was male. He had white spots on his feet only, as if wearing socks. He squinted and waved his tail. Well, little fellow, you’re mine now. Let’s go home. I left.
I shall call him Paco.
Translated by: Elizabeta Bakovska