prose

Zoran Ferić: Maya Calendar

LIT LINK FESTIVAL 2017

An extract from the novel "Maya Calendar" (Kalendar Maja) by Zoran Ferić, translated by Tomislav Kuzmanović.
The novel has received three awards in 2012 - the Jutarnji List Award for the best work of prose fiction, the Vladimir Nazor Award and the Zagreb City Award.
Zoran Ferić was born in 1961 in Zagreb. He is among the most widely read contemporary Croatian writers. His works have been translated into English, German, Polish, Slovenian, Spanish and Hungarian.



 

OLD AGE

translated by Tomislav Kuzmanović

 

Old age came in one day, on May 23, 2010, at 11 a.m. I’d just made myself comfortable in a bamboo chair in front of a small café underneath the Observatory, just below a device used to bring closer the stars that school children watch when they visit the capital on excursion. The signs of summer were getting more obvious by the day. The legs went numb less often, the sinuses did not ache, and the digestion was improving too. Until only a couple of years ago the warmest season came with open cars, buzzing of scooters, short skirts, colors and movement, things that you could no longer have, but could still watch what comes inside from the outside, into a man. Today it arrived with what came out. For example, a rather large mucus from the nose, which, when it after a heroic struggle finally ended up in a handkerchief, brought relief to the area of a left sinus. But all of it would’ve been okay, both the observatory and the walnuts and the warmth, and even that decaffeinated watery thing I sipped because of my high blood pressure, smelling in the air the whiffs of the real Minas Coffee, if all of a sudden, somewhere in the corner of my field of vision, like a mote or unwashed gum in your eye, an elegant lady had not appeared with her light hair and a démodé but still beautiful jacket made of black cow skin. She came out through the door of the ballet school and went down Radićeva Street. But then she was still nothing, a person, a shadow on a photograph that had been accidentally captured by two long-range lenses. Only then did it begin to sharpen. In the eyes as well as in the mind. The light hair carefully cut into a bowl, a gait characteristic of a ballerina and a well-known dress. But, just as I was about to get a closer look, she fished out huge sunglasses from her purse and put them on so I could not see her eyes. Neither her eyes, nor half of her face. Was it really her? She, it seemed, was taller. And I was already springing to my feet, pushing away the marble topped table, the cup and the plate that let on a little twang, and hurrying down, along the path that led to those three or four steps to Radićeva Street. She was just in front of me, but her pace was fast. I saw her back in the black jacket and a bag thrown over her shoulder. And the hair that swayed as she walked. Casual, but compact, as if her hairs were members of a well-tuned dance ensemble. You see such hair in Taft or L’Oreal commercials. I plodded behind her down Radićeva Street, but I nevertheless felt it would be stupid to just approach her and ask: “Are you Senka? Is that the jacket I bought for you in Corfu some thirty years ago?”

My enthusiasm slowly waned. Still, I did follow her all the way to Kamenita Gates where the street descended steeply towards the Main Square, when two things occurred to me: I didn’t pay for my coffee, and I would, if I went all the way down, have to trudge all the way back up the hill. And so I stopped by the bronze St. George slaying the dragon and watched as she grew smaller and smaller, stopped by a store’s window here and there, as if postponing the inevitable, and then continued to grow smaller. I stood there until the crowds at the bottom of the street swallowed her and then I tiredly went back. This was my first defeat that morning.

The waiter met me at the street and pierced me rudely with his eyes. He didn’t say anything, he just glanced at me and went back to the terrace. Obviously, he thought I was going to run away without paying for that gunk of decaffeinated Nescafe. Did I really look like that? Like those who run away without paying? I calmly went over his insult and made myself comfortable in my rattan chair once again. People at the terrace, an older couple and two or three girls, probably from the ballet school, watched me with interest. It was obvious that the catering worker had freaked out when he saw me running after a woman who looked so much like Senka. I took the newspapers from the next table, took a sip of coffee, and leaned back in my chair enjoying the sun that was making its way through the treetops of a hundred years old walnuts that would soon outgrow the Observatory’s tower. It was still pleasant, not too hot, and the unreal faces of those whose names stood in the In memoriam column watched me from the photos because that was where the person from the next table had stopped reading.

At one point I noticed that the waiter was still glancing at me under his eye. I had already finished that decaffeinated blend and now I was just sitting and reading the café’s newspapers. I was taking up space. So, although there were plenty of free tables, the waiter probably hated me on two accounts. First, because he thought I’d wanted to run away without paying and, second, he hated me in general, by the code of his trade, because I sat in front of an empty cup. As he passed between the tables and took orders, he fixed his eyes on my table. First he looked at my face, rudely, and then at the newspapers, as if he could recognize whether they belonged to the café or whether they were mine, private, and then his eyes accusingly fell on the empty cup. However, he did not come to take it away yet. It probably wasn’t polite, yet, but it would be soon. It was clear to me, namely, that as a fresh retiree I’d get in the way at home, when the wife vacuumed the house, when the grandson arranged his toy cars in a line all over the rooms I was still paying mortgage for, when the daughter studied for those exams she had not yet passed with her hands over her ears, but that I was getting in the way in a café, that was on this sunny morning, when I was thinking about Senka, something completely new.

And there he was, he ran up to my table, picked the cup and the plates with loud clings, swiped the table a couple of times with a small rag, as if I had spilled something, and I hadn’t, and said: “Twelve kunas.”

At that he aggressively examined the table, as if to see whether I somehow nevertheless managed to soil the smooth surface of the fake reddish marble, and then he circled the terrace with his eyes like those security cameras in stores that watch who stole and who would be stolen from as they spend they hard earned money on whatever it is they want to buy. He clearly made his guests know that they were suspicious, and he didn’t even look at me as I took fifteen kunas out my wallet and put them in his hand. And only after he put away the money it became clear that he was not checking who else could run away, he knew well who was sitting where, but that he was avoiding eye contact so that he wouldn’t have to give me the change of those three kunas back. This way he could say he got lost in thought for a second. He mumbled something like “Thank you” and turned his ass on me. Well, Senka definitely did not deserve such a jackass on this sunny morning of a day that would belong only to her. Partly because of that long gone emotion that had who knows why woken up on this morning, and partly because it no longer had anyone else to belong to. Those at home were too much there to dedicate a day to them, even if in my thoughts. This left only Senka and the way she walked down the street. And so this spring morning and those few swift steps of hers and her youthfully cut hair that revealed her neck somehow neutralized the fact that she, well, shrunk. We were all shrinking, without a doubt, all of us from the 4C Class of the former XVI High School, all of us born in one war and for the good part retired in the next one because our firms had bought off the rest of our working years. Just to get rid of us. So in my mind I told to this jackass: “No way!”

Resistance rose in me, somewhere from my stomach, from the deepest abysses of my body, although as years and decades passed I had made peace with it. With the Albanian peddlers cheating on me at the market, with the waiters insulting me, and my coworkers loving me. Because I was harmless. Senka woke it up in me this morning. Of course, I opted for a passive resistance. First and foremost, because I was an elderly, cultivated gentlemen, and also because the waiter was young and did not look friendly. That’s why I was sitting there in my passive resistance, with the papers open, pretending to be reading something about the Russian gas in the Croatian Adriatic. I got immersed in ecological problems, while the jackass kept glancing in my direction. He was, I suppose, expecting that I got up and gave the table up to other people who at the moment weren’t there but could come any moment. Besides, the Parliament was nearby, and when their session ended, the café would be filled with important people.

The girls that were sitting at the next table had long gone to their ballet lesson, the older couple was swallowed a couple of minutes ago by a bus that stopped here every once in a while, and I was still sitting at the empty table. Now I even closed the papers and put them on the table and so I was just gazing around. At the Chapel in the middle of Illyrian Square, the Mažuranić House a bit further, while pleasant music came through the open windows of the ballet school. A minuet. Something young bodies nimbly moved to. Senka was a ballet teacher and perhaps all this was not an accident. The jackass stood at the entrance with his stainless steel tray nonchalantly tucked under his armpit and tapped his shoe on the artificial grass in front of the door. Obviously, he was waiting from me to get lost. To disappear and to have my retired figure replaced by fresh air. And as we glance at each other like two gunfighters before a duel, I noticed that the catering worker had made himself comfortable. He leaned against the doorway, relieved the pressure on his back and it seems as if he was lying standing up and enjoying this spring morning and pleasant warmth just as I did. “No you won’t,” I said under my breath and lifted my arm. Sullenly he unglued from the doorway and approached me slowly as if ready to hit me. He even held that tray in one hand as if it were a racket.

“Do you serve champagne by the glass?” I asked because I knew they didn’t. In Zagreb there’s no bar that serves sparkly drinks by the glass.

“No,” he said with contempt and was ready to leave.

But I then, I don’t know why, it happened in a moment, said: “Check, please!”

He looked at me in shock. He didn’t know if I was screwing around with him or if I’d forgotten I’d already paid. True, I did run away first, but then I paid. You could tell, he spun this thought in his brain, thinking, chewing on it: perhaps this guy is an auditor; maybe all this is just a trap in the form of a quiet younger retiree. He chewed on this in his mind but it appeared as he was calculating how much a decaffeinated coffee with milk would cost. And then, as cool as a cucumber, he fired: “Twelve kunas!”

This time I took out twenty and gave it to him. He took the money and gave me the exact change back. For a moment more I could see surprise in his face, and then, although somewhat insecurely, he went back into the inside of the café. He probably thought that if he disappeared from sight, I would not remember I had paid twice for the same coffee. However, already in the next moment, actually as I was giving him the bill with Count Jelačić’s picture on it, I felt I got involved in some dangerous game. The fact that the waiter was now gone, that he had hidden away from sight, was a symptom that the constellations in this café on this beautiful morning had somehow changed. At one moment he passed by me as if I were a dead crow in the street and instead of looking at me angrily because I was sitting there for free, he averted his eyes. Now I’d at least paid for my chair.

But the barrier was broken. I was convinced that the waiter would continue to charge me for this one coffee until the end of his shift. He’d even work overtime to continue taking my money. When he came back with Coca-Colas for some Japanese tourists who somehow appeared here, he was still avoiding my eyes, however, it seemed he was passing by me with gentle contempt some people feel for those who are less fortunate than them. For mad people, mental patients. He was one of those people who would make fun of me if I were really ill. But I continued to sit there. I was going to pay once again. Just so to insult him in himself, although the game now seemed dangerous to me. I wanted to see that rude face when in the end, nonchalantly, I asked him for no apparent reason: “Excuse me, but why do you charge three times for the same coffee?”

You wouldn’t believe what kinds of people there are. Capable of risking their jobs for a couple of kunas. I was gazing at the newspapers when my cell phone went off: Tanja warned me not to forget to buy bread.

The moment I hung up, my eyes met the waiter’s. He was again standing at the doorway and fixed his gaze arrogantly at me. It probably seemed to him that it had been a while since I paid for the one coffee and this made him nervous. So I raised my hand and the catering worker this time somehow more willingly unglued from the doorway and in a second materialized in front of my table.

“Check, please!” I said.

“Fifteen kunas!” he said, as cool as a cucumber, and I gave him two ten kuna bills. He took them and, as if not having enough change, went to the register at the bar. In the meantime, I kept the wallet in my hand supposedly to remind me of the change. After a while he slowly walked out to the terrace and collected the money from the other guests and didn’t even look at me. Bastard. Not only was this the third time he took my money for the same coffee, but he also had no intention of giving me back my change. But when he saw me holding the wallet in my hand and watching him, he passed by my table and dropped a five-kuna coin. That’s the gesture you give coins to the beggars. The guy turned rudeness into art. He was young, gel in his hair, an earring in his ear, and the striped apron on him looked like the inception of a prison suit.

However, I wasn’t born yesterday either. I left the coin lie on the table just the way he dropped it and observed the squirrels in the walnuts as if I had forgotten all about it. Now, I noticed, the man in what appears to be the inception of a prison suit again discretely focused his eyes on those five kunas he had said goodbye to with disgust not even a minute ago. I gave the pig back hope that he would get it.

The guy now polished a completely clean table next to me in order to somehow establish a connection between my retiree’s memory and the coin. Is there a contact between us, is there some kind of vibration, telepathy. I’d never seen such bastard before. I waited for him to go away so I could call him back again. To make him walk. This time he approached me, it seemed, more kindly. Never once did he glance at the coin. I ordered a shot of Martel and then he looked at me disappointedly. He must have thought that I would pay the fourth time for the same coffee. And then, with illogical happiness, he brought the glass with the cognac on a small plate.

“There you are, sir!”

Now he was polite and he almost bowed as he placed the plate on the table. He had to be hoping that I’d pay for the Martel several times as well. And it cost more. However, instead of going away, as he had done until now, he stood next to me with the tray under his arm and waited. I looked at him questioningly and he grinned and said: “I have to charge you! My shift is coming.”

What’s this? When I paid for the coffee three times, he didn’t ask anything in advance, and now suddenly, “Pay, please!” But why? And as I slowly take out my wallet and pick up those five kunas that are still standing on the table like an orphan from the past passive resistance, it slowly dawns on me. Martel is more expensive, and someone as senile as I, someone who forgot he had already paid his bill, someone like that could perhaps just as easily forget that he did not pay and slip off the terrace in his quick retiree’s steps. Perhaps this comrade dressed in an inception of a prison suit thinks he’s seen through my game. He pretends to be senile, a forgettable individual, pays twice for the same coffee, gives his waiter the guilt complex, charges for the moment of weakness and the attack of innocent greed, although he provoked it himself, that espresso provocateur, a turncoat. And then he orders an expensive cognac, chugs it down, gets up and leaves. Can now the waiter have the nerve to stop him and tell him he didn’t pay for his Martel because then he could remember he paid for his coffee three times. And an original Martel costs more than three coffees. That’s what the catering worker had to think when he told me politely, “Gimme your money, you old bastard!” It was only logical. He saw things from his own skin, thief’s skin, and with his own eyes, thief’s eyes, and the thing was furthest from my mind, that whole construction, when I’d decided, in a fraction of a second, the amount of time a squirrel needed to jump, to pay for the same coffee three times as a sign of revenge. I started something dangerous and there, in his thieving eyes, I had already become just like him: a retired thief, an old asshole who went around cafes and provoked the honest waiters. What would come out of this in the end?

And just at the moment when I took out thirty kunas to pay for my cognac and thought whether now was the moment to ask him that nonchalant question, a very young woman with face of a child walked in on the terrace leading a mongoloid little boy by the hand. The moment he saw the waiter, the boy run toward him and firmly grabbed him by his leg. He embraced it as if it were a pillar in a temple, or a wood in a forest. Anyhow, like something we admire to. The man in the stripped apron bent down and picked the kid in his hands. He took him into his arms and kissed him. The little mongoloid pressed his face against the waiter’s and they stayed like that for a while. In that short time it seemed everything had stopped: the squirrels in their jump, the minuet from the ballet school, while the people at the terrace froze.

“Give Daddy a kiss,” said the woman tucking the kid’s shirt into his pants.

And the little mongoloid cheerfully kissed his father on the cheek. This is a happy event, I thought. The kid would never learn what kind of a bastard his father was. One disappointment avoided forever.

Suddenly I gave up on asking him anything, I got up and passed by the father with the little mongoloid in his arms. In the meantime, as I left the café, the walnuts, and the waiter with the child in his arms behind me, it slowly became clear what had all this turned into. The oaf in the stripped apron believed in my senility, with his experienced eye he had probably estimated it might be very likely, they have that talent, the waiters, I mean, their catering third eye, and my forgetfulness suddenly became convincing even to myself. This meant that from now on I was old. Much older that I was yesterday, or this morning. Who would say that the old age come in one day, that it was brought by a rude waiter in form of a tasteless coffee and that it could happen at the turn of spring into summer.

 

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