(A usual day of a usual pensioner. It does not concern others. What is known in itself is boring, what is unknown to us is still outside the circle of our interest. So, though written, this story does not have to be read.)
You wake up early, out of habit, that is, not early but just on time. When the other workers do. You don’t wonder whether you got that habit from boarding school, the army or the office. The main thing is, whenever you go to bed, whether you slept enough or not, sometimes even after sleeping too much, you wake up at the same time, as if with an alarm clock. But now, as a pensioner, it bothers the others that go to work. Maybe they don’t mind you, but you are under foot – in the bathroom, kitchen, and hallway. The younger employed ones at home don’t understand why you have to occupy space in the bathroom the same time they do, using up the hot water for the shower, blocking the shaving mirror, or lining up your coffee pot first. Where’s that old fart hurrying off to, where’s he going to earn his bread, when nobody’s asking him to sign in at the start of the day?
But the inertia of habit is sometimes even stronger than the will to live. Every pensioner is aware of it in a way, and therefore, maybe, the weaker your will to live is, the more persistent you are in keeping to the habits of staying alive. Pensioner-intellectual, or at least the literate pensioner has an even greater motive to be like that, because it is perfectly clear to him that now is the time to place a crown on his life’s achievement, that is, to finish it off in a becoming and dignified way.
So, when the young go to work, it’s your turn. As grandma holds the grandsons and granddaughters on their special potties, you carry yesterday’s garbage to the closest container and say good morning to the neighbors who are up. Then you take a grandchild in each hand and take them to the kindergarten, on the way telling them the names of the neighborhood dogs, and explaining to them the difference between a sparrow and a blackbird. The children pass the spectrum test based more on the color of cats than on the color of clouds, and they are especially interested in houses were there are children younger than they and the shops that have sweeter chewing gum.
On the way back from the kindergarten you stop at the store to get some bread and milk, or salt and oil, or tea and sugar. Then, as you drink your weak coffee with grains of saccharine, you put together the shopping list. Everything has to be written down in order, just as it goes into the bags, the potatoes or onions on the bottom, the peppers or tomatoes on top, and not the other way around. And what is not on the list, will not go into a bag. Improvisations are possible with parsley, celery, and flowers only. The market list must strictly adhere to market principles, and it cannot be like some loose agreement.
One you lose it, in the middle of the market, maybe, or when taking out a handkerchief or some change, you don’t have a clue how to shop that day. Man has one mind, not two – well, one for home, and another for the market. In this quandary, and in the crowd, you meet, or better to say, collide, with an old school friend, now a retired surgeon. He has finished his shopping and, completely happy, lugs his full bags home. What’s the worry? he wonders, take my list. All women order the same thing: carrots, beets, and apples, no mistake here. And after talking about the high prices, and low pension, in one breath he tells you the joke about the dead man, how they couldn’t cross his arms on his belly button because they too stretched out from carrying bags. What do you think he was? A pensioner, my brother, just like us. You smile sourly, still thinking it’s funny and you want to tell this joke to others, and you take his shopping list, forced to do as he did. But despite everything, it goes wrong, because you have to return afterwards – as always, you’ve forgotten something: parsley, celery, or flowers.
Be that as it may, while you went to the market and back, the breakfast break passed. When you were going to work, you would not just glance at the newspaper, but also read it, not only read it but also study it – from the commentaries to the crossword puzzle, most thoroughly, with your pencil in your hand. Now you collect the newspaper pages from all the rooms and sit down to put them together, to make a newspaper out of them again. And then you see that the crossword puzzle has already been filled in, with different handwriting, that the recipes and the cosmetics advice have been clipped with small fingernail scissors, and some of the sad obituaries have been checked with a black marker. Then you sit in the old armchair, put your glasses on, and lift your feet, propped up by one cushion for the left kidney and one for the right, one horizontal for your lower back, and another vertical for your spondylitis; you stabilize your brain and your high blood pressure, and, as soon as you open the newspaper, your eyelids drop.
In that shallow sleep, like in dark mud, the large headlines about events mingle with the small intimate fish. Like in a store with its shutters closed, cockroaches, rats, and bats come out from dark corners and fill the stage with their vampire dances. An editor-in-chief offers you a column, in exchange for your soul, for six months. A minister gives you an advisor’s post, not to advise him, but to lure others with wrong advice. An MP promises you an extra month’s pension, providing you agree to vote for him at the next election, early and often. The Prime Minister appoints you ambassador to a country that is still not on any map of the world. And the President of the country, at your farewell party, hands you coded instructions that you can open only in cases of extreme urgency, like a thimble of cyanide. And all the time, while these comprehensive preparations take place, your life companion is by your side, of course. But, at the climax of the send-off, when you are about to say good-bye to your country with a patriotic hug, and embark on your thorny trade mission – the telephone rings in the hall, sounding like it’s under your pillow. Your wife leaves the iron and starts a long and detailed exchange about whether mousaka with leeks should be cooked with oil or with gas. In the meantime, the smoke of reality gradually drifts through the cobwebs of slumber. The shirt under the iron turns from white to yellow, from yellow to brown, from brown to black, and then a hole – and panic unnecessarily seizes the house, until the receiver is put down and the fire is located. That is how the first intellectually productive morning slumber of our pensioner, newspaper in his lap and glasses on his nose, ends.
In order to escape this drowsiness without noticing he was in its net, he quickly lifts the newspaper and glasses, but he doesn’t know where he was in his reading. He leafs through the pages, more with noise than with his mind, and he folds it open to the obituaries and the forecast. He goes over the deceased, not like an angel in silence but like a sparrow hawk from the clouds, but then he realizes again that the familiar names have already been checked off, and the forecast is the same. It’s a different thing with the crossword puzzle: he always argues with his wife about who should get it first and she always tricks him, so he’s left only with the clues that she didn’t manage to fill in. That is what she used to do since the beginning of their marriage with playing cards, and in general. In the beginning he would let her win, but in time she started really beating him, so he still owes her a dozen high heels, modern purses, and silk for dresses. Luckily she is not malicious, or she’d have skinned him by now, especially since they depend on his pension, which he earned, but it’s not enough.
With the obituaries, it’s a different thing, for there are more levels there. The first circle contains the close ones, the ones you find out about by phone first. Then, there are the acquaintances, and the news about them is spread by phone and obituary at the same time. And finally the ones you learn about only through the obituaries. However, the obituaries tacked onto telephone poles concern neighborhood acquaintances only. You might meet them when you go to the grocery store: at once, turned into literature over night, instead of greeting them as they walk just like you, with a bag in hand, you see them on the telephone pole, in a barely recognizable picture from their younger years, with their full name and surname, not their nickname, and their age even, within a thick black frame. But most of this black news is published in the newspapers – the city one (aren’t we a big city?) and the state (aren’t we an independent state?). So, returning to them now again, you can make a daily balance of how many left in ripe age (your peers), how many after you, and how many before you, though here an account can be made only to the extent that there is order in this matter, and because God did not grant us such a thing, your count remains incomplete. That’s why you drop the pencil, sharpened for the crossword puzzle but used for the obituaries also, and you leaf through the newspaper for a hundredth time, stopping not only at the headlines but also at the texts, until you throw the thing away.
With batteries full of the day’s information and fresh impressions, having rested and even napped, now you can do some serious work. Take a book from the ones you put aside for reading, write a letter if there is one to write, sort the piled notes, or sit at the typewriter. Anything, just so you don’t feel useless. While you’re pondering, you enter the kitchen and consider whether to make a second coffee.
There, neighbor women of the first order sit with your wife and have their morning exchange of another kind of information. They ask you if you know a certain someone, you admit you do, but carefully, so as not to fall for something. What ever happened to that someone, you ask, standing above your coffee pot on the stove, they sitting in front of their empty cups. What ever happened, did he have a heart attack? Or, did he die before his time? You guess, and they deny knowing. Did he become a shadow minister, did he travel abroad? A diplomat, MP, representative of a foreign company, lecturer at a world university, beneficiary of a Fulbright scholarship? No. Old age? No. What then? He remarried: left his wife with the children and the house, and moved into the apartment of some bimbo. He, that guy? He, your school friend. Congratulations. What congratulations? For his courage. Or balls? If he has any.
Of course, your coffee boils over, the froth on top long ago spilled off, and with what’s left of your coffee you retreat to your, as if were, workroom. Maybe it’s better that only the bottom of the cup is full, and all at once you feel not only excited but shivering, and your hands shake, your dentures rattle. Your mind is not on your deliberations anymore, or which serious affair to deal with; now you are preoccupied with that certain someone, with his tremendous decision to remarry at your age. The coffee is not enough, sometimes even after a cigarette, and you might consume two coffees per day and ten cigarettes, without alcohol and salt, without bread and sugar, without lard and sweets. Vegetating only, without overdoing things and overworking, without passion and stress. Everything that might contribute to stress should be shaken off at every crossroad.