Based on “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway
“Do you know – all this time this thought will not leave my mind and I was troubled, lest they grazed your zephyrous soul.” – Vapcarov
An old man, each evening, would walk from where he lived to the center of Skopje behind Ristić Palace, cross Macedonia Square, go over the Stone Bridge, and after strolling on level ground, would clamber up to the barrel house which sat on the lawn right under the fortress across The Church of the Holy Savior. When I say old I mean really old, a person with at least 80 years under his belt and on the verge of meeting his maker, not a man who some green journalists present as old but won’t see 60 before being run over by madmen who drive as if the streets are empty and made to cater to their lunacy. After climbing up and sitting at a table under the leaves of the maple tree which shielded him from the effusive light coming from the lamppost near the water fountain, the old man would order a drink right away, and the best drink in a barrel house can be nothing else but beer in that he always asked for stout on tap. The old man liked to stay late, until the last call so to speak, because he enjoyed being outdoors on the lawn especially at night when the youth, who came here mainly during the day and made a lot of hubbub, fled across the river and crammed into parlors and pubs along the Vardar or on Macedonia Street near the House of Mother Teresa or in the clubs in the park.
He was a little deaf, which he embraced because he could sink into his own thoughts and follow them as they came and they were mainly concerned with his present life, his former past and his future departure from this world. He very much liked to sit and mull things over in that particular barrel house because it was well-lighted and because it was clean and however dark and soiled his life was the things he most fancied and appreciated in this world were light and cleanliness. And maybe there was something else! During the night in question all the clients, except the old man, of course, somewhere around midnight, slowly paid their bills, gathered their stuff, and swaying from the load of beer in their guts, like Babylonian swindlers, dispersed either through the dim streets down toward the flea market and the center or left across Goce Delčev Bridge, past the seat of government on to Ilindenska Street to the Debar neighbourhood and then Karpoš, Vlae and Gjorče, or right uphill toward the American Embassy, and then another right across the street to Topaana or a little farther off past the bends, down John Kennedy Street to Chair. The two waiters knew the old man was a little drunk but also knew he was a good client and only kept an eye on him that he didn’t overdo it and get hammered, because when he did and the time came for him to leave he would forget to pay. So they stared straight at him as if under Circe’s spell like Odysseus was once upon a time, or the spell of the greatest witch from Bitola himself, the Saint.
“He tried to off himself the other day,” one waiter said to the other
“It got too much!”
“For fuck’s sake, is what all you can say? The void, the void! The hollowness that calls on man when he gets old and has one foot in the grave.”
“How the fuck do you know it’s the void?”
“Hell, he’s made of money, isn’t he? If he’s got it made what else can trouble him apart from what I’m telling you about?”
The two of them sat at the table touching the wall right next to the bar and looked at the lawn that, as I told you, was empty now, except for the old man dozing there under the maple leaves that swayed under the breeze that came from the Vardar below. On the street under the fortress a girl and a soldier walked past arm in arm. His hat and red stripes on his shoulder could be made out under the streetlight, two stripes one next to the other, which meant he was a corporal, and the girl walked bareheaded next to him and would make a dash every now and then so as to keep step.
“The military police will round him up, they will give him hell!” said one waiter.
“What does he care if he gets laid!”
“He had better hug the wall, not strut in the middle of the street. They’ll catch him, rough him up good. They’re killers, scary as hell. I saw them walk past earlier!”
It seemed the old man then woke from a deep sleep, tapped the wooden table with his empty mug. The younger waiter went over to see what he wanted.
“What is it? What’s all this banging about?” he said forcefully.
The old man looked him straight in the eye. “Another!” he said.
“You’ll get hammered, make a fool of yourself!” he told him. The old man continued to look him straight in the eye. The waiter went back to the bar.
“He will be the death of us! It doesn’t look like he’s leaving before dawn!” he said to the other waiter, “I’m dog tired. For once I would like to go the bed before the fucking sun rises! Why doesn’t he go to hell once he has made his mind up to off himself for fuck’s sake!”
Still, the younger waiter got a new pint, poured in beer from a barrel and took it to the old man.
“Damn it! Why haven’t you killed yourself?” said the waiter to deaf man and wanted to take away the four empty pints that sat in formation before the old man.
“Leave them!” said the old man and firmly grasped his hand and again stared straight into his eyes.
The waiter went back to the table against the wall and sat down next to his colleague again.
“He’s wasted!” he said, “he couldn’t be any more drunk!”
“Like last night,” said the other, “I like how he downs those pints.”
“Did he really want to kill himself?”
“How should I know, I’m not in his shoes!”
“How did he want to do it?”
“Who saved him?”
“The woman who cleans for him. She came back because she had forgotten something and found him hanging with swollen balls for god’s sake! She cut him down with scissors!”
“What the hell is the matter with people, why do they make fools of themselves and act stupid?”
“I told you before, the void, that is what does it, nothing else!”
“Why doesn’t he go home, doesn’t he have anyone to bring him home to bed?”
“He has jack all,” said the older waiter and thought for a second, “everyone he knows who hadn’t kicked the bucket some thirty years ago dropped dead about a month ago and all in one week as if they’d planned it: his brother, daughter-in-law, sister, a niece. All of it, the property, house, apartments, are left to him, but see, he doesn’t give a damn, he wants to kill himself!”
“I wish he would go home! He’s alone. I’m not alone. I have a wife waiting in bed for me!”
“He had a wife once too,” said the older waiter to the younger.
“I’m sure. A wife would be no good to him now.”
“You can’t tell,” said the older one, “he might be better with a wife.”
“Hell, I wouldn’t want to be that old!” said the younger one, “an old man is a nasty thing! Just look at this one! Still drinking for fuck’s sake!
“This one isn’t dirty!” said the older one, “look how clean he is! He drinks without spilling. Even now, drunk. Look at him!”
“I don’t want to look at him. I wish he would go home. What is happening to the world, to have no regard for those who must work!”
The old man simply lifted his empty pint as high as he could which signaled to the waiter to bring him a full one. The waiter who was in a hurry to go home bristled up in front of him and waving his arms in the old man’s face spoke to him with that omission of syntax stupid people employ when talking to drunken or old people, “No more. Finished. Close now!”
“Another!” the old man insisted, but the waiter wouldn’t have any of it. “Finished. Closed!” He started wiping down the table with the cloth that hung over his shoulder and shook his head.
The old man slowly rose, one by one counted the empty pints, took out his wallet, paid for the drinks and left a hefty tip. The waiter watched him walk down the street toward Stone Bridge, his hat on his head, upright as if he had a broom up his ass: a washed up old man that swayed as if there was an earthquake, but full of dignity for heaven’s sake!
“Why didn’t you let him stay and drink?” the unhurried waiter asked. They were putting away the tables and the night was still young. “It is not two yet and we never close before three!”
“I want to go home!” said the hurried waiter.
“What is an hour?”
“More to me than him!” said the younger one.
“An hour is the same!” said the older one.
“Alright, it’s the same,” agreed the waiter with a wife. He did not wish to be unjust. He was only in a hurry.
“And you? You have no fear of going home before your usual hour? What if you find another man?”
“You are a funny guy,” said the younger one.
“I’m not funny,” said the older one, “just making conversation. Hell, don’t take it to heart.”
“Come on, lock up!” said the waiter with a wife, “and don’t talk bull! I’ve had it up to here with bull!”
“Don’t be angry,” said the older waiter without a wife, “I am of those who like to stay late at a café’. With all those who do not want to go to bed. With all those who need a light for the night.”
“I am of those who wants to be home at this hour, with my wife, she lights up my nights!”
“We are of two different kinds!” said the older one. “Each night I am reluctant to close up the barrel house, really uneasy about it. I say to myself, what if as we are closing up someone needs it to be open?”
“Have you lost your marbles?” said the waiter with a wife. “Do you have any clue how many joints in Skopje work until morning?”
“You don’t understand, pal. It’s not about going to any old joint, it’s about sitting here across from the Holy Savior where it’s well-lighted and clean and the leaves from the maple tree dance in the wind!”
“Hell, you’re a real poet!” said the hurried waiter and added “We’re done!” before being swallowed up by the streets that led right toward Chair where he lived.
“We’re done!” said the older waiter and turned off the light. He headed left toward Goce Delchev Bridge and suddenly the old man whom they had thrown so carelessly out of the barrel house sprung to mind. “Sure he’s old,” he spoke to himself, “but he knows what he wants: light and cleanliness. And he isn’t dirty, he drinks without spilling and walks with dignity even when he sways!” He walked a little more and when found himself in front the joints along the Vardar and saw a mass of bodies pushing and squeezing at the bars he said to himself: “Look at these punks, what the hell do they know about the void? Until they feel the wail of the void, the hum of hollowness that cries out, they’ll only be full, lust-bloated bodies that fuck their living daylights into ungodly hours. But man, true man is void, like the universe is void, even like God, for heaven’s sake!”
“What will it be?” said the man that sprung up suddenly from behind the bar of the joint he absentmindedly stopped at.
“Give me an empty one!” said the waiter that was not tired.
“You must have some screws loose,” said the barman.
“Hell, make it double!” said the unhurried waiter.
“You need a doctor, not a drink!” said the barman and turned his back.
The waiter walked some more through the city, going from joint to joint, he must have stopped off across from the House of Mother Teresa too, and maybe went thought the park, who knows, because it was all the same crap to him, all the joints in Skopje, and in the world at three in the morning, they were spitting images of each other, like they were all from the same crappy mold, overflowing with a young, pissed off at who knows what world that mercilessly and aimlessly wastes its unfathomed bodies.
“None of them are just right,” he said to himself when he headed back toward the fortress and the lawn across from Saint Savior where his barrel house was. “If they are well lit, they are not clean, if they are clean, the light is a little off. You can’t find anywhere just the blend that we have. And when you have that blend you enter the void, the hollowness, you remember the closeness of God!”
He climbed up under the fortress, came to the barrel house, entered, turned on the light, poured himself stout on tap and sat at the same table at which some two-three hours ago the old man had sat under the maple leaves that played in the wind that came from the Vardar below, and drank heartily.
“Void!” he went talking to himself, “beautiful, wonderful void, our Void which art in heaven, Void be thy name, thy kingdom Void, thy will be Void in earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into Void but deliver us from Void. For thine is the kingdom…” So he spoke saying the prayer sat there across from Saint Savior, using speech that was a little bit dated, perhaps a little muddled, some words changed, like he was not from this world, the bastard, like he was some spirit, maybe the bright and clean soul the old man somehow sniffed out because It breaks through just at this clean, well-lighted place, and every night he would invariably come and wait for it to call upon him so that then, maybe on a windy night such as this, he could shuffle off this stubborn and useless body, slip into the void and make himself comfortable there from where many years ago, through no will of his own, he came!
Translated from the Macedonian by Aleksandar Sumkoski