Barefoot Experience

Short story by Gordan Nuhanović

"I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with his characters, his quirky imagination, and unusual folklore. I also learned a great deal about the blossoming Croatian culture, which is still enjoying the expansion of urban sprawl. Rock music, odd obsessions with pristine, well manicured English lawns, and (don’t ask) gallstones become interesting symbols of normalcy. Although war and paranoia are still present within the stories, the reader is left with the impression that this violent consciousness is slowly evaporating."
The Literary Lollipop on “The Survival League"



Translated by Julienne Eden Bušić


Actually, it all happened in a dream. Vjeko described his experience later as a surge of energy pumping into his body, a quiet, dreamy infusion. 

That morning he felt like wearing something special, something clean, white, yielding. He shaved off his sparse beard with his father’s razor, and then made a perfect part in his hair, slicking it down with walnut oil, sauntered into the kitchen with a smile which would henceforth be a permanent fixture on his face, and whispered what had just occurred to his mother. As she grated onions, Jaca regarded him from behind her frizzy bangs, a little taken aback by the perfect part. Just as she was beginning to say something, he raised both hands and, imitating the sonorous voices of the ancient prophets, said:

-We hear them speak in our languages about God’s great gifts!-

Meanwhile, Jaca routinely turned on the fan above the oven.

Apostles 2:11- Vjeko added.

In contrast to her husband, Jaca had always shown sympathy for the inclinations of her only son. She and her son had always shared secrets with one another. Jole came home from work at 3:10 and immediately after lunch would be back on the construction site, exhausted, and suffering from bad digestion. Everyone knew father was swamped with work in the summertime! Renovation projects were in progress and builders took advantage of the warm weather, so Jole had no idea what was happening at home, and he knew even less about what had preceded the night Vjeko had described as the turning point in his life. Ah, if it had only been winter when all the projects were halted, Jole and Jaca said later, sighing. Bad weather meant that Jole could leave the office and drop by the house whenever he wanted. Maybe the two of them together could have recognized the signs earlier and reacted in time, they said.

But God doesn’t choose his seasons.

Jaca swore that nothing had seemed suspicious; she often saw the boys Vjeko spent time with in his room. They were nice boys – Jaca particularly emphasized their good manners – Vjeko’s age, between twenty and twenty five, hair parted on the right, and dressed in pleated suit pants into which they tucked their starched shirts with the crisp collars. They made a very old- fashioned impression for their age, but Jaca saw this as a commendable sense of propriety. She had lined up their shoes neatly in the foyer. They didn’t smoke in the room or leave crumbs.

-Well! Any mother would be happy to have either as a son-in-law! - Jaca said later to her husband in justification. 

And then the boys would talk quietly for hours. Jaca would hear monotone voices behind the locked doors. It seemed to her that her son was just listening and paying attention, which was not surprising to her at all.   She would sometimes serve them juice made from the elder tree and salty snacks on a tray engraved with deer. 

-Guests are sacred to me! – she would say later in her defense when her husband accused her of being naïve.

At that time, Jole was occupied from early in the morning with rectifying problems on the site. After all, everything depended on him, the owner and director of the firm. He went from site to site, clambering up wobbly ladders in order to give a tongue lashing to a sunburned seasonal worker who was sloughing off, or yelling over the cacophony to the crane operators that they’d be finding other employment if they didn’t shape up. He vaguely suspected them all of stealing from him, from the wholesalers to the carpenters. They’re all just a bunch of sons of bitches you have to keep your eye on all the time! – he would say to his wife as a way of explaining away his continual absences.

And when somebody told him, during one of his quick stops at a site, that his son looked very impressive in a suit - a real man’s man, they said - Jole suspected no note of sarcasm. He just scoffed and responded in his usual way after all these years on the construction site, just let his voice go all out: - Ha? Him in a suit? That snotnosed kid doesn’t even know how to knot a tie! -

He laughed immoderately at this while the other employees dispersed throughout the firm, eyes averted. But Jole wasn’t crazy and he also wasn’t naïve like his wife: by the end of the day he had squeezed an admission from his secretary. 

With the maximum of tact, she related to him what people were saying in the company: - That your son is a Jehovah’s witness - she forced this out, watching fearfully as the director’s nostrils rapidly widened. 

People who are always out in the field, always covered with dust and working under deadlines – these people want things at home to function; they want order, a basic rhythm, and at least a little gratitude for the comforts they offer their loved ones. Jole had big plans for his son. Besides, he needed someone he could trust, someone he would train for the job, who, when the right time came, could take over his cash cow. He was thinking of all this as he drove his jeep home, shattered by the news. And right in the busiest part of the city, at one of the most vulnerable corners, the place where the pedestrian zone feeds into one of the main arteries, he saw while waiting for a green light a face he would recognize among a thousand others.

People behind him were honking and blinking their lights. He was clogging up traffic, but he found it difficult to turn away from the sight of Vjeko offering passersby a fistful of illustrated color leaflets. He recognized the suit his son was wearing as one of his, an old worn suit he thought his wife had given away long ago to some shelter for the poor.

And that part in Vjeko’s hair! First Jole’s jaws locked up, and then, overwhelmed suddenly with panic, he sunk deeply into his seat. 

-Did anyone see me? - It was as though his skittering eyes were asking him this question themselves. - Maybe some envious competitor who can hardly wait to ruin my reputation in the field? 

-Take it easy, calm down – he repeated to himself as he inhaled deeply, attempting to regain self-control. Although the sun was not out, he lowered the car blinds and crept into the first side street without even signaling. His heart was pounding. What he needed now was some isolated backwater café and a strong drink, at the very least. 

Jole was late for lunch, but his family hadn’t wanted to start without him.   A bit drunk, he made a wide berth around his wife and, leaving his hands in his pockets, got into his son’s face.

Vjeko kept his composure: - Let’s say grace – he said, palms pressed together, just above his soup bowl.

Jole looked in surprise at Jaca, who had promptly acknowledged her son’s murmurings. 

-We give thanks to Him for this wonderful meal – Vjeko stated, suffering under the burden of his father’s breath. Jaca, following her son’s hand movements, crossed herself. At this moment, Jole’s huge fingers headed toward his son’s throat, but halfway there, began suddenly to cramp painfully, while the saliva in the cleanly-shaven Vjeko’s mouth formed knots that traveled fitfully down his throat like peas in a constricted pod, carrying away all the color in his face.

A spoon fell off the edge of one of the plates, the glasses began to clink all of a sudden, and the surface of the soup started to bubble.

-Jehovah’s eyes are on the righteous, his eyes administering to their prayers -Vjeko proclaimed finally as his gaze coursed over his father, head to toe. 

Then he added, emboldened: Peter the First, 3:12.

Vjeko made quick progress. The good memory and work habits he had achieved in school assisted him in mastering the learning materials. On rainy days he would stay in his room, surrounded by practical literature, but on the first clear day he would rush out, his hair always impeccably parted. A black bag hung from his hand, and in it he clutched a batch of brochures. His posture was erect, his face open to the world.

Jaca barely found the time to iron all his shirts and the pleats on his pants, but she couldn’t refuse his request for cleanliness. He had thrown away his jeans and tennis shoes: T-shirts he had brought in by the truckload from Trieste and other far-flung spots he donated to the Red Cross. Jaca secretly liked Vjeko’s new image. But sometimes, as she shook dandruff from his jacket, she would call his attention to various examples of modern tailoring.

-Not even Christ was self-indulgent - Vjeko would remind her.

He was capable of standing all day on the square, calm and dignified, offering leaflets and brochures in a manner admired by many of his fellow, respectable citizens. Soon Vjeko became one of a three-member group which went from house to house and apartment to apartment. His perseverance served him well in this new task; he conducted conversations on doorsteps, often even from the sidewalk, while trying to speak over the barking of dogs that had been sic-ed on him, or the revving of car engines in the garage. He was not discouraged by getting the door slammed in his face or by the sudden silences which came after the houseowner had looked through the peephole and seen who it was. 

-Good news has to find its way to them- he would tell his listless colleagues.

In time, he won over many apartments and sometimes, at an entrance to a building, an entire group of people would stop and listen. He captured their attention with his clever views and the boundless energy he invested in his conversation. Sometimes his mouth would become dry, lacking even a drop of saliva, but he would proudly reject a glass of juice, even on those days when his voice would cut his sentences in half. He had seen through alcohol long ago, and wasn’t interested in coffee.

-Do not love the world or what is in it- he instructed. -Whosoever loves the world holds no love for Him!

He would come home late, pale and hoarse, but the night lamp at his work table continued to burn well into the night, while Jole, who was only a few meters from the separating wall, tried unsuccessfully to fall asleep.

Weeks passed, and the weather suited for outside projects was gradually replaced by rain. The first frost arrived, there was less work, and thus Jole had substantial time for contemplation.

-Talk to him - Jaca would urge him.

So Jole would burst into his son’s room and then, confronted with what he found there, rush out again, slam the door, and loudly lower all the blinds in the house. Then he would retreat into his winter garden with the artificial sunlight. Those days he would complain of the strange transparency of his veins.

-Old age- Jaca would tell him comfortingly.

First thing in the morning, Jole, plagued now by insomnia and roaming throughout the house, would hear Vjeko putting on his shoes and quietly tiptoeing across the floor. He would try to summon an earlier closeness by gently squeezing his son’s shoulder. For a moment, the pale light of the winter morning would reveal their exchange of glances, until a sudden thought would upset Jole’s stomach.

-For God’s sake, move around a little- he would suggest.

Vjeko would carefully retreat toward the outside door. Since the day he had experienced his father’s rough fingers moving toward his throat, he realized his earthly mission would be subject to uncontrolled reactions from his nearest and dearest.

-As long as you’re standing on the street - Jole would continue, in a phlegmy voice - then at least change position, move around a little! People don’t have to see you every day on the same corner - he would say, barely moving his lips. And then in the early dawn, dead tired, he would yell after him - And don’t you dare ring our relatives’ doorbells!

That’s how Vjeko’s day would begin. But his joy about spreading the truth of the heavenly kingdom would quickly disperse the heaviness he carried from the house onto the streets. New challenges awaited him and sometimes he barely endured till sunset; every day he became more and more inspired in his presentation, more committed to the tasks entrusted to him.

News about Vjeko’s skill in spreading the good word disseminated throughout the small community. It was thus decided that his work would be specialized and directed toward something that had become prevalent in Christian households. He was to tackle superstition. His list of family visits became focused on only the most endangered, those who needed him the most. 

-Jesus drove out part of the demons, and his students did the same- Vjeko would begin his work with these words. He would go from example to example, using quotes from the Bible to illustrate concrete cases, in order to then deliver a tirade right on the spot about the deadly repercussions of trifling with evil spirits. Hurrying to make his point with his rich vocabulary and exalted bearing.

-Awaken!- he thundered - their goal is to deter us from the only hope for mankind!

His mobile phone was available night and day for those who yearned for his words. He would travel to the farthest peripheries to make calls, to settlements without street names or house numbers, to places where his distended black bag attracted the attention of the most incorrigible lawbreakers. He had experienced two burglary attempts, but the attackers upon opening the bag were disappointed with the plunder, and took out their rage on poor Vjeko’s frail body. But he persevered, and never had he asked for days off to recover.

-Jehovah’s Angels stand over those who fear him and they are delivered- he would continue the next day where he had left off the day before. He could feel that the energy accumulated within him restored itself daily and then simply flowed out into the community. 

Soon the first concrete results were seen. He broke up a fortune-telling ring in a nursing home and persuaded a mother against an abortion, due to the projected due date of Friday the 13th. He didn’t regret for a moment using his precious time to explain to a demoralized housepainter that walking under a ladder was no reason for despair or quitting his job.

He went to houses who had lost loved ones and closed the windows.

-The soul will find a way to reach God-he would tell the grieving families.

Even the sense of weariness that comes with spring did not faze him. Though pale and transparent, Vjeko was engaged in an excess of activities. He never complained of pains. He slept very little, but his face exuded freshness. Most important to him was expanding as widely as possible the circle of those he had enlightened. Whenever one of his “brothers” would ask him in confidence about his methods, Vjeko’s answer was always the same: love and faith.

One morning he remained longer than usual fixed in prayer. The day was already well along, but Vjeko, kneeling on the linoleum floor, was preparing himself for the task that he considered the most difficult thus far in his short but successful career. He realized he could no longer fool himself or his loved ones. Many doubts swirled around in his head.

-Am I as hypocritical as the Pharisees?- he asked himself. - The Son of God also started with those closest to him. Can I be a worthy disciple - he whispered - if my own flesh and blood don’t believe in me?

He was finally caught up by the thing from which he had been trying to escape.

Jaca saw Vjeko from the kitchen, moving along the hall. Then she heard him enter their bedroom, open the closets, armoires, and the large dresser drawer. She caught him with his hands up to the elbows in his father’s undergarments.

-Mama - he asked - doesn’t he have a single pair of socks?

For the first time since Vjeko had been enlightened by faith, Jaca experienced her first clear twinge of unease. She approached and energetically closed everything he had opened. Then she set herself, a live barrier, between her son and her husband’s underwear.

-No, there isn’t a single pair - she answered brusquely.

Vjeko’s silence at that moment could only be considered a bad thing.

All afternoon, Jaca tried to focus on her cooking, but Vjeko always seemed to be at her heels. An otherwise simple roux burst into flame. The beans refused to cook all the way through. Tasting them, Jaca realized she had oversalted, and then she had almost thrown out the smoked meat with the bean husks. 

All of a sudden, she felt overwhelmed: she stood and squinted, holding on to the edge of one of her kitchen appliances.

-You’ll feel better if you tell me everything, believe me - Vjeko breathed down her neck.

-Like Jesus, we look only for the good in people- he whispered tactically, pushing her tense shoulders downward. Jaca sat down on a chair.   Her gold caps gleamed from the corners of her mouth, one after the other as her mouth widened, like a traffic danger signal. Something shattered inside her. Her shoulders relaxed and moved downward, together with the thin lines of her mouth.

-Yes, it’s true that he hasn’t worn socks for three years now - she began in a raised tone, as though wrenching the words from a constriction deep inside her.- He gave them up that summer when I talked him into taking the mudbaths. That was the first time your father had had a vacation in thirty years - she said with obligatory respect. 

Vjeko shot out of his chair and approached his mother. His hands, pressed together, rested under his chin. He listened obsessively, nodding his head slightly from time to time. He had already mastered the art of being a patient confessor.

-He became very weak there in the baths, from the sulfur, oh Lord, how it burned one’s eyes!- Jaca recalled. - And he, you know how he is, all he could think about was work, and his mobile phone was ringing non-stop, all bad news from the construction site…

And then all of a sudden he told me he was going to take a look around, breathe in the fresh air, you know..He was gone a long time, and when he came back to the pool, he was somehow distracted, troubled. - Jaca’s account became increasingly fluid.

-I was suspicious, why lie about it, since he’d been gone a long time - she said, as though justifying her doubts. - And when I pressed him about it, he admitted he’d just come back from the woman who gazes into the crystal ball…You’d know better what that’s called.-

-Hmmm. Fortune telling - Vjeko mumbled and ran his tongue over his lips.

-That’s it! The poor guy thought at first it was some kind of tourist attraction. It was a woman with a green turban, and in front of her, on a collapsible chair, there was a crystal ball, like in the amusement park. I mean, you pay, and she tells you something, some story.

But during the session, your father realized this was serious and had nothing to do with tourism or entertainment..but by then it was too late to quit…-

-So what did she foretell? - Vjeko asked bitterly.

Jaca’s expression suddenly became hollow. The years of security she’d had in her kitchen abandoned her - the hanging cupboards, the chopping boards, the steam, the odors, the whirring of the kitchen appliances - all the things in which she had found refuge seemed suddenly endangered, vulnerable.

- She told him he was going to die in his socks - she said quietly.

- And the heavens opened up! - Vjeko interjected, and looked up toward the ceiling, moist from the steam. - And he took that seriously?-

-She prescribed monthly check-ups. They call it individual treatment.-

He jumped to his feet as though stung. He took one step, two, then stopped, turned and pointed his finger at her: - Jehovah loves the truth and will not abandon those who are loyal to him! - he growled.

Jaca succeeded in grabbing his hand.

-He told me not to say anything about it to anybody- she said beseechingly. -He hides it from people - she whimpered, stroking his palms.

Vjeko pushed her away, but gently, not roughly: working with people he had learned professional responsibility. He believed a dose of mercilessness was required to reach the essence of truth and that God’s order suffered no exceptions.

For awhile longer, he felt the tip of his chin trembling before regaining complete control over himself. After returning to his room, he was again the old Vjeko, assured and self-confident. He ignored the knocking at the door and the entreaties, and night found him on his knees, next to the bed. This isolation would be considered a luxury under other circumstances. He remained as motionless as possible, the better to focus upon the problem. A breeze through the open window immersed his lungs with scents of the night.

It had long passed midnight when he shifted the position of his tingling legs, though he had some time ago decided on shock therapy. It was clear to him that his vacillation had roots in the past. But everything was still so fresh and new, the images still indescribably powerful. A million malicious eyes were watching for any false move. From time to time he felt icy fingers searching for a porous spot on the outer precipices of his soul. They tormented him all night long, until the break of dawn.

-Might as well get it over with - he said, exhaling deeply, and took out of his clean socks drawer a pair of white sports socks with diagonal stripes that hit a grownup just at the ankle. Socklets, Jaca called them. They were soft, and a little worn out from being washed so often in the centrifuge. He placed them over his left palm as though he were about to leave, then turned once more to the wall crucifix. His murmurings were still vibrating against his lips as he considered whether he ought to add something, at least in those few moments of indecision, when he was still trying to figure things out in his mind. And then he crept into the bedroom.

Because his father was a light sleeper, he had decided to keep everything to a minimum. Thus: open the door as little as possible, spend as little time in the room as possible. He had stuffed both socks halfway into his pockets, the left one in the left, the right in the right. Two steps brought him to the bed of his parents. He knew that Jole had slept his entire life on the window side of the bed. As usual, he was on his back, snoring lightly. His mother emitted no sounds whatsoever. He lost a split second observing their moon-drenched faces: pale and calm, almost youthful. His father’s heels were cold. He thought to himself: - eh, so many winters without socks!

He needed three movements for each heel: toes, feet, ankles. Altogether, six coordinated moves. A big toe peeked out of one of the socks, but Jole’s face remained peaceful. Clouds raced across the sky.

He left the room, kissed the cross above his bed, and lay down.

By the time his mother’s voice crept into his range of consciousness, sleep still had not succeeded in calming his swirling thoughts. She lurched in through the door.

Heart attack – she stated brusquely – In his sleep. He didn’t suffer.

Vjeko rose up in bed, his phantasms dissipating in the quivering morning light that bathed the room. The first roosters were warming up their drowsy throats. Vjeko shot out of bed and went straight to the bedroom. Holding his breath, he crept over to his father, who was snoring, wheezing, you name it.

-Thank God - he crossed himself, standing over his father, and skillfully pulled the socks off his feet.

This was pretty much the end of Vjeko’s career.



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